Prison is a bad place for kids. Not only is the experience of being locked up traumatic, but it’s also the wrong environment to treat mental health and substance use conditions that often predate trouble with the law.

That’s why it should be disturbing to Mainers that, more often than not, young people are held at the state’s juvenile corrections facility because they need care and not because they pose a danger to the community.

And according to an extensive survey conducted by the D.C.-based Center for Children’s Law and Policy, the most common reason for a young person to stay at the Long Creek Youth Development Center longer than 30 days is not because they committed a serious crime, but because they don’t have a home that they can go to and there isn’t a place for them in an appropriate residential program.

Kids shouldn’t be locked up behind barbed-wire fences because we haven’t kept our promises to fund community mental health programs. The Legislature has a chance to take an important step toward ending this inhumane and counterproductive approach to treatment with a bill that received a public hearing before the Criminal Justice Committee last week.

The bill follows the recommendations of a task force that has been studying the issue for the last year. It would give the Department of Corrections $2.5 million to place juveniles in treatment programs around the state instead of holding them at Long Creek. It would also send $1 million to the Department of Health and Human Services to expand community mental health services.

The bill’s sponsors say that it would reduce the population at Long Creek, currently about 60 youths, by 25 percent in the first year and 25 percent in the next.

The $3.5 million expenditure would not create new secure facilities to house the very small number of Long Creek residents who are considered dangerous to the community. As a result, it would not result in the closure of Long Creek as a juvenile corrections facility, which has drawn opposition from activists who say that the state should get out of the juvenile incarceration business right now.

That’s a good goal, but Maine has to start somewhere, and cutting the Long Creek population in half is a good first step. Lawmakers should take it while they continue working on plans to completely replace Long Creek with a more appropriate network of treatment programs.

This is not as big a challenge as other deinstitutionalization efforts, where programs were needed to serve hundreds of patients when facilities like Pineland or the Augusta Mental Health Institute closed their doors. Creating appropriate placements for 60 youths should be achievable.

And building up the infrastructure of community-based programs is the right way to move toward that goal. Lawmakers should not miss this opportunity to take this important step.


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