We humans tend to be creatures of habit, often doing the things we’ve always done because it’s what we know, even when it’s not working. An especially troubling example of this is in our juvenile justice systems, where data clearly tell us that locking kids away puts them on a road to failure and greatly increases their chances of adult incarceration.

That’s why many states across the country are taking a different path. They’re closing youth prisons and using money spent on incarceration to develop new and more effective community-based systems of care. Maine has an opportunity to consider doing the same if state leaders are willing to ask some hard questions and look for better answers.

And rethinking Long Creek Youth Development Center is one place to start. Despite a dedicated staff, strong leadership and sincere commitment to reform, independent experts have documented unsafe and harmful conditions at the facility – conditions endemic of this institutional model.

Neither Long Creek nor the Department of Corrections bears sole responsibility for the problems at the institution. Other system failures have resulted in many young people with behavioral and mental health needs being shunted into the juvenile justice system, with many locked away rather than being provided with the community supports needed to turn their lives around.

But Long Creek is plagued by the same problems common in large youth prisons across the country. These institutions have the look and feel of an adult prison, with limited and insufficient educational, vocational, recreational and rehabilitative programming. Training for frontline staff is often focused on security and control, leading to low morale and contributing to a culture of punishment rather than healing. Harmful conditions are prevalent, with abusive conditions documented in at least 29 states since 2000, including physical and sexual abuse, long periods of solitary confinement and repeated violations of basic human rights. The outcomes for youth are predictably dismal, as seen in the high rates of re-arrest and re-incarceration. All this at phenomenally high expense, with little oversight or public accountability. Maine spends $250,000 per year to lock up one young person.

Simply put, youth prisons are factories of failure.

Because the problems in youth prisons are so prevalent and the outcomes so poor, many states and cities are replacing this failed institutional model with a continuum of more effective alternatives. These alternatives include programs to divert young people from the juvenile system altogether when possible; community-based and family-focused interventions for those youth requiring more intensive help; and much smaller residential options for the few young people who may require a period of secure care. These secure residential programs should be small, close to home and focused intensively on healing, rehabilitation and education, to get young people back on track.

Maine’s leaders have an extraordinary opportunity before them. In her inaugural address, Gov. Janet Mills identified the need to take a fresh look at Maine’s juvenile justice system, and a proposal to form a task force to consider changes has been introduced in the Legislature. Maine can learn much from other states, which are fundamentally changing their approach by following the four Rs: reduce, reform, replace, reinvest.

Reduce the number of young people incarcerated, and divert youth to alternatives to the juvenile justice system.

Reform the major elements of the current system, and build a continuum of effective alternatives to institutional confinement. Prison should never be an alternative to community-based treatment for mental illness.

Replace Long Creek with smaller residential options, for those very few young people who require some form of secure care.

Reinvest money from the ineffective institutional facility toward community-based prevention and early intervention.

Closing youth prisons isn’t simple or easy. But continuing to pour public dollars into an ineffective institution that has been shown to harm the very young people it is intended to help – just because it will be hard for adults to come up with a better way – fails the “my child” test. After all, if we wouldn’t want one of our own children to spend months in Long Creek, we need to question why we would want someone else’s child to go there.

Patrick McCarthy is former president and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and was director of the Delaware Division of Youth Rehabilitative Services.


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