Statehouse Report: Legislators closing in on strategy to shut down Long Creek juvenile center

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As the legislative session enters its home stretch, the fate of the Long Creek Youth Development Center hangs in the balance.

Activists and editorial pages have urged closing the state’s only “youth prison,” but the state’s Department of Corrections, and Gov. Janet Mills, have yet to warm to the idea.

Nevertheless, a modest breakthrough occurred when Commissioner Randy Liberty endorsed a bill sponsored by Rep. Mike Brennan, D-Portland, calling for new, much smaller secure residential facilities that could lead to the emptying of Long Creek within two years.

“When I was at Long Creek as a social worker, there were 240 kids incarcerated,” shortly after it opened in 2002, Brennan said in an interview. “Now there are 26.”

The pandemic and diversion efforts at Long Creek have drastically cut the number of juveniles at the South Portland facility, yet about half of those confined do not have to be, but simply have nowhere else to go – a fact emphasized by those who favor its immediate closing.

Brennan’s bill, LD 546, was heard by the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee on March 26. The hearing featured testimony from youth advocates – some formerly incarcerated at Long Creek – who called for closing and removal of all youth programs from the Department of Corrections, with the transfer of responsibility and funding to community organizations.

That’s not going to happen, said Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, the committee’s House chair. The panel is moving toward closure, but there will need to be secure facilities, even if they feature residential living and not prison bars, she said.

Nor has the committee shown much interest in another suggestion, that jurisdiction for those 18 and younger be transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services, as at least one other state is attempting.

The nature of the secure facilities, and whether a closing date should be set, loom as two of the major questions the committee has to resolve.

Brennan’s bill, comprising the recommendations of the Maine Juvenile Justice System Assessment and Reinvestment Task Force, is largely unchanged from one considered last year that vanished, along with a host of other legislation, when the pandemic began and lawmakers adjourned.

It prescribes two to four secure residential facilities, each with a capacity of five to 10 juveniles, with at least one to be built in Cumberland County and another in Penobscot County. In practice, that may mean buildings on the grounds of Long Creek and the Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center in Bangor.

Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

As to whether more than two might be needed, Brennan said he’s content to wait for a plan developed by the Department of Corrections, which is charged with doing so in the bill.

Then there’s the question of funding. The state has sometimes found it tricky to close an institution while developing its replacement.

When Gov. Angus King was leading the transition from the old Augusta Mental Health Institute he was sometimes visibly frustrated that the state was paying for the community mental health programs starting up to receive AMHI patients while continuing to run the hospital itself.

Fortunately, the King administration saw a robust flow of revenue – substantially higher than estimates until 2001 – and the money was found.

This year, some see a glimmer of hope in the “change package” Mills plans to present to the Legislature shortly after it reconvenes later this month (now, only committees are meeting). It will include nearly $1 billion in discretionary money allocated to Maine under the American Rescue Plan Act enacted by Congress and signed into law by President Biden on March 11.

If the package contains funding for secure youth facilities, that will be a sign the administration is ready to move toward closing. Then $18.4 million of funding now devoted to Long Creek can also be gradually shifted to the more robust community programs the department envisions, essentially diverting all but a few young offenders from confinement.

“If all that happens, Long Creek will be empty in 20-22 months,” Brennan said.

Warren isn’t sure that’s enough. “Any bill we pass needs to have a closing date,” she said. “Without it, it just won’t happen.”

Brennan demurred, saying the state has previously closed other major institutions, notably the Pineland Center for the developmentally disabled, and AMHI. He conceded, however, that it took years to make that happen.

Another bill concerning Long Creek, sponsored by Rep. Grayson Lookner, D-Portland, has yet to be printed, and Lookner said he wasn’t ready to describe all its provisions. But he said it will include a binding closing date.

The committee could use either bill as a vehicle for an amended version, or it could write its own bill. Either way, Warren said it intends to send a bill to the floor for action in the current special session, which is expected to end in June.

Douglas Rooks has been a Maine editor, commentator, reporter, and author since 1984. His new book is “First Franco: Albert Beliveau in Law, Politics and Love.” Visit  douglasrooks.weebly.com/#/ or e-mail [email protected].