The future of Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland is one of the things being studied by a state task force and a legislative committee. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)
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Maine Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty acknowledged last week that “not much good comes of juveniles and youth being incarcerated,” adding that such sentences “can do more harm than good.”

He was testifying on a Department of Corrections bill during a Feb. 5 Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee hearing.

Issues of juvenile corrections are in the forefront in Augusta as the Juvenile Justice Task Force, chaired by Rep. Michael Brennan, D-Portland, Jill Ward of the Maine Center for Juvenile Policy & Law, and Liberty, wrestles with a 172-page report prepared for it by the Center for Children’s Law in Washington, D.C. The report includes detailed recommendations for sweeping changes in how the state handles juvenile cases.

At least half a dozen bills before the committee address some of the consultant’s key recommendations, including the age at which children can be detained or incarcerated, what community services must be provided, and – one of the most contentious points – whether to move adult women incarcerated at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham to Long Creek in South Portland, the state’s only “youth prison,” which is operating at one-third of capacity.

Sen. Susan Deschambault, D-Biddeford, the Criminal Justice Committee’s co-chairwoman, has been there before. Her three decades as a Department of Corrections employee began at the long-closed Stevens School for Girls in Hallowell, where “incorrigible” runaways were sent under the guardianship of the Department of Human Services.

The 1976 Code of Juvenile Justice had just been enacted, with cases transferred to the Department of Corrections. While the code’s reforms were seen as progressive, the corrections model is now being questioned in states across the nation.

“We now call them ‘incarcerated children,’” Deschambault said in an interview. “That makes you think differently.”

Unlike the 1990s, when criminal penalties were being increased, “We’re now seeing the damage that prisons can do to everyone, but especially children,” she said. “And the problems are different. Not just runaways, but substance abuse, mental health issues, and homelessness.”

The consultant’s report focuses on several topics, including whether juvenile services should remain with the Corrections Department or, as most states have done, be transferred to independent agencies or to the Department of Human Services.

For now, however, the action is more likely on bills already in the pipeline.

Rep. Victoria Morales, D-South Portland, sponsored LD 1684, which would prohibit incarceration of any juvenile younger than 14, and detention of any child under 12 – in line with task force recommendations. Morales said the changes would affect only a handful of recent cases. She also said, however, it’s important to establish firm age limits because data on early incarceration show clearly it can be profoundly damaging.

The consultant’s report also zeroed in on the typical length of stay at Long Creek. Morales pointed out that Maine’s juvenile sentences have a “mandatory minimum” of one year.

“The evidence shows that anything over three to six months can be harmful,” she said, “yet we require at least a year.”

The report also warns against the Corrections Department’s plan to move women to Long Creek, in addition to the youths already housed there.

It states, “Do not co-locate youth and women in DOC custody to Long Creek,” pointing to “significant logistical challenges” and “significant financial investments” for the changeover. Co-location would put Maine “outside the mainstream” in mixing adults and youth, “which does not happen in other states,” according to the report.

A Department bill, LD 1723, would authorize the transfer of women, while a competing bill, LD 1108, sponsored by Brennan, would require Long Creek to close by 2022, with youth services provided elsewhere.

Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, the committee’s House chairwoman, strongly supports this recommendation. “There’s no real provision for programs for women (in the department bill), and the children’s programs would definitely suffer,” she said. “There’s no other way to create the sight-and-sound separation federal law requires.”

More evidence supporting closure is that, according to the report’s detailed analysis, 59 percent of those held at Long Creek “present no danger to themselves or others,” and are being held primarily because there’s nowhere else for them to go.

The situation owes much to the success of efforts by a previous task force, in 2010, to strictly limit incarceration. As Chief Justice Leigh Saufley told task force members last May, “It’s 10 years later, and we have hit two of those benchmarks with a vengeance” – the ones advocating reduced incarceration and arrests. Arrests have dropped by 58 percent, and commitments by 68 percent.

Long Creek, with a daily population that hovers around 60 kids, both committed and detained, could be replaced; on that most task force members agree. “We’re at the gateway,” Deschambault said. “We can look through to the other side, but the picture isn’t clear.”

Other states, including South Dakota, Utah, and Kentucky, have moved to limit commitments and create a presumption for community treatment. Deschambault is hoping to hear more from the public: “It looks a lot different back in the community – especially rural towns where there are few services – than it does at the Statehouse,” she said.

For Saufley, the goal is the one also articulated by Liberty.

At the close of her Jan. 28 State of the Judiciary address she asked, “Are we incarcerating our youth because we have nothing else for them?” and answered the question herself: “It’s time to take the next step and create the community-based options that we all know are needed.”

Douglas Rooks has covered Maine issues for 35 years as a reporter, editorial writer, columnist and former editor of Maine Times.

Edited Feb. 13, 2020, to correctly identify Jill Ward’s affiliation with the Maine Center for Juvenile Policy & Law.