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Task Force Finding Maine Juvenile Justice System Dysfunctional

Critics charge that Long Creek, Maine's prison for juveniles, is not organized or staffed to deal with the real needs of those young people. (Richard Ross/AECF)
Critics charge that Long Creek, Maine's prison for juveniles, is not organized or staffed to deal with the real needs of those young people. (Richard Ross/AECF)
December 30, 2019

AUGUSTA, Maine - The task force looking at Maine juvenile justice is finding signs the whole system is upside down.

Jill Ward, project manager of the Maine Center for Juvenile Policy & Law at the University of Maine School of Law, is one of the task force co-chairs. She says testimony they've heard shows that, for lack of good alternatives, the state is locking up too many less serious young offenders in Long Creek - the state's juvenile prison - and keeping them too long.

Ward says research shows locking up any young people for longer than six months does more harm than good. But Maine is keeping them longer than sixteen months.

"Their length of stays were over 500 days, on average," says Ward. "More than six months, you have diminishing returns as far as public safety goes and recidivism goes. More than six months, you're creating more problems. You're not getting the kind of outcomes you want."

The American Civil Liberties Union has been calling for Long Creek to be closed since a transgender youth committed suicide there three years ago. Others counter that the prison provides the kind of restrictive setting needed for dangerous juvenile offenders.

The Juvenile Justice System Assessment & Reinvestment Task Force met in mid-December and expects to issue a report in February.

Ward says one central problem is that judges and families lack good alternatives - sentences that could keep juveniles in the homes and communities that encourage good behavior. Ward says incarceration often seems like the only option.

"Because Long Creek is the only place that can't say no when kids need some kind of help," says Ward. "Mental-health services, substance-use treatment services, housing - a whole array of areas that there aren't sufficient alternatives."

Ward says a sign that the system is upside down is that the juveniles at more risk of re-offending are getting out before their generally less dangerous peers. Ward says that makes no sense from a public-safety standpoint, but it's exactly what's happening on average.

"Those kids were actually getting out of Long Creek sooner and the young people who were staying longer were actually assessed at a much lower risk," says Ward.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - ME