Why would a young person go to prison?

In Maine, more often than not, the answer is that they have no other place to go.

That is the shocking conclusion of a six-month study of the youth held in Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland.

The Center for Children’s Law and Policy, a consultant hired by the Maine Juvenile Justice Advisory Group, found that more than half the time (53 percent), the reason a young person needed to be held in the state’s most restrictive juvenile corrections setting was “to provide care.” Only 19 percent of the time, the reason was to protect others from bodily harm, and only 7 percent of the time, the reason was to protect a victim or witness.

Roughly three-quarters of the juveniles held for more than 30 days were there because they were awaiting placement in a more appropriate setting – not to protect the community.

Prisons are not built to provide care, and there is ample evidence that holding a young person in a prison setting can damage them for life. If they have a mental health issue, as many youthful offenders do, prison will make it worse. If they are having trouble in school, getting yanked out of their classes and community won’t help. And the longer they stay, the more likely they are to end up back behind the barbed wire.

The problem is that Maine has not invested in its community-based programs, leaving law enforcement, judges and corrections officials without viable options. If there were enough group homes, specialized foster care placements and community mental health and substance use disorder programs, we wouldn’t need a place like Long Creek for the relatively few youth who need a secure setting. But since those programs don’t exist, we are pouring money into a facility that is making the problem worse.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Other states have dramatically reduced their rates of youth incarceration, and for once, Maine’s aging population can work to our advantage. Because young people make up a relatively smaller portion of the population, Maine has the opportunity to focus on their needs.

The study’s preliminary findings were presented to legislative leaders last week, and there will likely be bills this session that seek to fund programs using some of the state’s projected $75 million surplus. The coming debate “is not going to be comfortable,” predicted Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, who co-chairs the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. But she said it’s a conversation that is long overdue. “What all the data is saying to us is that we need community-based resources,” she said.

Rep. Michael Brennan, D-Portland, offered a preliminary estimate of $3 million to $4 million that would be needed to make a meaningful dent in detentions. That sounds like a lot, but not compared to the $17 million spent each year to fund Long Creek.

Prisons exist to punish crimes and protect the community. We shouldn’t expect them to do much more than that.

“It’s a question of values that we don’t want to lock up kids only because of something that they cannot control,” said Mark Soler, executive director of the Center for Children’s Law and Policy. “We want kids to be held accountable for their behavior. But we don’t want to lock them up for something that they didn’t do.”

The center’s final report is due next month, and it will have a list of reform recommendations that Maine lawmakers should take seriously. Young people should not be in prison just because we can’t think of any better place to put them.


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