The fight to close the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland, which ended inconclusively in the last legislative session, continues in this one. Criminal justice reform advocates contend that the Department of Corrections is moving too slowly in finding less restrictive settings for incarcerated juveniles.
Rep. Grayson Lookner (D-Portland), serving his second term on the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, is among them.
His new bill, LD 1779, received its public hearing May 2, with testimony falling along familiar lines: reform advocates in support, and law enforcement and corrections officials opposed.
Correction Commissioner Randall Liberty testified, “It’s a false narrative to think the state can close a facility, redistribute funds, and suddenly no longer have violent young people.”
Michael Kebede, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, countered that, according to a U.S. Department of Justice report, Long Creek houses individuals more appropriately treated in the mental health system.
“This prison uses more than 150 staff and costs the state over $12 million per year to house a handful of young people,” Kebede said.
Lookner told the Phoenix that, contrary to Liberty’s testimony, he recognizes the need for secure confinement. Rather, his purpose is to speed up the process of closing Long Creek, which has long since outlived its usefulness.
Once housing 240 juveniles, it’s now licensed for 165 and usually houses fewer than two dozen.
Its troubled history includes incidents of excessive force by security personnel and, in 2016, the suicide of a transgender youth.
“Last session we provided plenty of money for three new secure facilities,” Lookner said. “Only one has opened.”
That facility is on the Long Creek grounds, and provides separation for girls, but falls far short of establishing a closing timeline, he said.
In his testimony, Liberty said he’s more interested in two other bills. LD 155, sponsored by Rep. Michael Brennan (D-Portland), and LD 1878, sponsored by Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland). Both would establish study commissions.
Lookner said he hopes the committee instead insists that Corrections set a closing date, as reform advocates tried to do earlier. “We’ve waited long enough,” he said.
Another priority from the previous session, the return of parole to the prison system following its abolition in 1976, is inching along.
LD 178, sponsored by Criminal Justice Senate Chair Pinny Beebe-Center (D-Rockland) had its hearing March 13, and two work sessions since, the most recent May 3.
Lookner said the committee has now opted to have parole advocates meet with victim’s rights groups to see if a compromise can be worked out.
The bill faces stiff opposition from the Department of Corrections, which now has sole jurisdiction over early release programs, and from the Attorney General’s office.
Since Maine abolished parole, 16 other states followed suit. None, to date, has reinstituted it.
Douglas Rooks has been a Maine editor, columnist and reporter since 1984. His new book, “Calm Command: U.S. Chief Justice Melville Fuller in His Times, 1888-1910, will be published later this year. He welcomes comment at [email protected].