Maine must decrease or eliminate the jailing of children and find better ways to treat and rehabilitate troubled young people while keeping them close to their homes and families, Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley said Friday at the first meeting of a juvenile justice task force.

The group – whose mission is to plan ways for the state to reduce youth incarceration and improve services for children – has the rare, simultaneous support of Gov. Janet Mills, legislators and the judiciary, Saufley said.

Saufley said the work of creating alternatives to placing children in Long Creek Youth Development Center, the state’s only youth prison, is unfinished business from a decade ago when a different group of juvenile justice advocates made three major policy recommendations: increase graduation rates and keep children in school; reduce the number of children who are locked up statewide; create a wide range of treatment and placement options that do not involve jail.

“We have hit two of those benchmarks with a vengeance,” said Saufley, who lauded growing graduation rates that now exceed 90 percent statewide, and the successful diversion of kids from incarceration, down from a peak of about 300 children jailed in the early 1990s, to 50 today. But the final piece – a continuum of options for children and families – has gone unrealized.

“We have a long way to go for our youth. We all know that. Every one of us in some different way in our lives understand we are still not providing what our youth need when they need it. As judges will tell you, the need for a greater range of youth services has gone unmet for too long.”

Jill Ward, of the Center for Juvenile Policy and Law at the University of Maine School of Law and a co-chair of the group, said that Maine is not alone in its push to end youth incarceration and abandon old ways of thinking about juvenile delinquency, trading draconian zero-tolerance policies and outsized rhetoric with the evidence-based methods that do the most good.


“There were no super predators,” Ward said. “There were just a lot of families and communities that needed support.”

Ward said the group plans to hire a national consultant to help collect and organize information and make sure the group is asking the right questions.

Rep. Michael Brennan, D-Portland, kick-started the effort when he submitted legislation to create the group. But the bill proved unnecessary after the stakeholders agreed to convene without a law directing them to do so and soon began planning the initiative with the help of co-chair and Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty.

Saufley left the group with three recommendations as it begins its work.

“First, do no harm,” she said.

Second, consider that minorities in Maine have a disproportionate contact with the justice system, an inequality that should be addressed; and to pay special attention to the youth LGBTQ community, who are the most at risk. In line with goals to reduce LGBTQ youth incarceration, a new campaign also launched Friday by Portland Outright, which supports under-served LGBTQ youth, aimed at closing Long Creek.

“Working together we have accomplished a whole lot,” Saufley said. “But there is a lot more to be done.”

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