A majority of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee has endorsed a bill that would gradually reduce the population at the state’s only youth prison.

The bill also would prevent the courts from locking up young people at Long Creek Youth Development Center simply because they can’t go home because it’s unsafe or they have nowhere else to go. And it would direct the Maine Department of Corrections to study possible locations for two to four “small, secure therapeutic residences” in southern and central Maine that would be alternatives to the South Portland facility.

The bill – L.D. 2151 – would not force the state to close Long Creek as some advocates have demanded. It would reduce the facility’s population by 25 percent by July 2021 and by another 25 percent in each of the following two years. While the state has reduced the population at Long Creek during the COVID-19 pandemic, there were still 32 young people there on Friday. Based on that number, the bill would mean no more than 25 youths would be in Long Creek one year from now.

Those benchmarks do not bring the population to zero, but Democrats identified that end goal during a committee work session on Friday.

“By July 2023, Long Creek should be closed?” Sen. Susan Deschambault asked during the session.

“Well, I think the short answer to that is yes,” answered Rep. Michael Brennan, D-Portland. “Based on these benchmarks and based on bringing the residential programs online, I would say with some certainty within the next 24 months that Long Creek could be empty. And it would be obviously up to this committee and the (Maine Department of Corrections) to decide what the future of the building would look like at that point.”

Still, the legislation is not strong enough for youth activists who have called for more immediate change. Organizers from Maine Youth Justice testified neither for nor against the bill earlier this spring.

“We are asking for this committee to listen to young people and create legislation with a plan for the closure of Long Creek by 2022, a plan for the reinvestment of the $18 million dollars currently being spent to incarcerate young people, and a plan to reassign responsibility for youth justice to a new agency by 2021,” Al Cleveland, the campaign manager of Maine Youth Justice, wrote.

Other groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and Day One, testified in support of the bill. But they also expressed concerns that the bill would not go far enough in its reforms or enforce the benchmarks outlined for reducing the Long Creek population.

“The bill before you does not propose or incentivize closing Long Creek,” Alison Beyea, the executive director of the ACLU of Maine, testified. “But, if we truly love our youth, and want our youth to not only survive but also flourish, we must imagine a Maine free of youth prison.”

Seven Democrats met in person for the work session and voted ought to pass. Three members, including two Republicans, attended by Zoom. Those members and others who did not participate in the discussion have 24 hours to submit their votes, but those in support already represent a majority of the 13-person group.

The committee did not discuss a recurring suggestion in testimony from Maine Youth Justice, Maine Inside Out and other groups that work with young people who have been involved in the justice system.

The bill would allocate $3.5 million to the Department of Corrections and the Department of Health and Human Services for community-based therapeutic services and other programs to keep juveniles out of Long Creek. But advocates encouraged the legislators to put that money directly into community organizations, not into state agencies.

“It only makes sense for community experts to be the ones with decision-making authority advocating for what is best for our communities and not for these decisions to be made within the systems that have caused harm to those they are meant to serve,” Anna Diaz, a board member at Maine Inside Out, said in written testimony.

The Appropriations Committee also will need to consider the bill, and both bodies of the Maine Legislature would need to pass it. The governor’s office submitted written testimony in March that mentioned “questions and concerns with certain provisions of this bill,” but no specifics.

The proposals in the bill came from a task force that has spent months reviewing juvenile justice in Maine. As part of that work, a national policy group made dozens of recommendations for reforms in a report to the task force.

The Center for Children’s Law and Policy issued a draft report in January that found 53 percent of the youths at Long Creek were there because either their home environment was too unsafe or there were no community-based services available that could handle their behavioral or mental health needs.

And roughly three-quarters of those held at Long Creek for more than 30 days were there because they were awaiting placement in community-based programs, according to the study.

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