Advocates are asking lawmakers to commit to closing Maine’s only youth prison within two years, a step that is still opposed by the state Department of Corrections.

Lawmakers are considering a resolution that would direct the department to make a plan for shutting down Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland by June 30, 2023. That plan would include redirecting the prison’s $18 million budget to community services outside the Department of Corrections and turning the building itself into a community center for youth. If passed, the resolution would not be binding like a law would be, but it could set the state on a course that youth activists have demanded for years.

Two dozen people spoke in favor of L.D. 1668 during a public hearing before the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee on Monday. Others submitted written testimony. Supporters came from Maine Youth Justice, Maine Inside Out, the Maine People’s Housing Coalition, the Restorative Justice Project Maine, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and other groups and experts.

Al Cleveland, an activist with Maine Youth Justice, read testimony on behalf of Michael Fortin, who is currently in custody at the Androscoggin County Jail. Fortin, now 18, wrote that he was first incarcerated at Long Creek when he was 11 years old. He described sexual and physical violence he experienced and witnessed there in the years that followed.

“We have a chance to do the right thing; to close Long Creek and stop this chain of hurt and neglect being forced upon youth,” Fortin wrote. “I, and others, agree that the funding we use to lock the mentally ill and homeless youth is better spent on mental health treatment, building homes, and feeding the hungry.”

Every person at the hearing spoke in support of the resolution. No representative from the Department of Corrections addressed the committee, but Commissioner Randy Liberty submitted a letter that opposed it. He said the department has an action plan to reduce the use of secure confinement for youth in Maine, which incorporates recommendations from national experts.

The commissioner said he would be willing to modify that plan, but not to include the closure of Long Creek.

“What we’ve seen thus far is positive progress, including the significant reduction in the number of girls committed, reduction in overall commitment rates, increased diversion, and two new community placements, with a third expected in June for youth requiring step down services before returning home,” Liberty wrote in the letter. “The actions of the Division of Juvenile Services, the focus on monitoring and measuring outcomes will help ensure we don’t see unintended consequences. We’ve been careful with our plan to ensure unintended consequences like juveniles going into the adult system, juveniles being placed out of state, juveniles being returned to homes that are unsafe do not materialize.”

Just eight years ago, Long Creek held more than 100 youths, but the population has dropped in recent years amid calls for reform. As of Friday, just 25 young people were detained or committed there. A task force spent months studying juvenile justice in Maine, and the national Center for Children’s Law and Policy published a 160-page report last year with dozens of recommended changes.

That report inspired several bills beyond the resolution discussed Monday. One – L.D. 546 – would gradually reduce the population at the state’s only youth prison but would not guarantee its closure. At a public hearing in March, Liberty was the only person who spoke in support of that bill, while advocates testified in opposition because it would not go far enough.

Those who spoke in support of the bill returned often to the report by Center for Children’s Law and Policy. One of the findings was that 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 to 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.

The report also identified stark racial and ethnic disparities. For example, the research looked at 254 cases that involved detention at Long Creek. Nearly one quarter of those youth identified as Black or African American, while census data shows that Black or African American residents make up only 1.6 percent of Maine’s population.

Michael Kebede, policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said this resolution is the “best poised” to address those findings out of all the juvenile justice bills this session. He quoted one of the goals outlined in that report: “Achieve the removal of all youth from Long Creek.”

“The juvenile justice system has become the default provider of behavioral and mental health services for Maine youth,” Kebede said. “And as previous testifiers said, youth of color and LGBT youth are over represented in our juvenile justice system.”

Vincent Schiraldi, the co-director of the Columbia University Justice Lab in New York, also spoke in support of the resolution. He told the committee that he is the former commissioner of the New York City Department of Probation and the former director of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services in the District of Columbia, and he worked in both places on plans to phase out youth incarceration. New York City, he said, invested in alternatives and created a network of small residential programs that are run by nonprofits, and the number of youth who were arrested and incarcerated plummeted in the years that followed.

Rep. Richard Pickett, a Republican from East Dixfield, asked Schiraldi about how to treat young people who are accused of violent crimes like murder. Schiraldi said some of those residential programs in New York City are secure facilities, but they are modeled after supportive homes instead of prisons.

“The way the systems often are now, the judges are presented with stark options,” Schiraldi said. “It’s like if you went to the doctor and said, ‘I have a headache,’ and the doctor said, ‘I have two possible cures: an aspirin or a prefrontal lobotomy. Take your choice.’ That’s what very often judges have available to them. They either have total locked custody … or they have inadequately funded community programs. What this allowed us to do was, it allowed us to create a range so they felt like they had different choices up and down the continuum.”

The committee will next hold a work session on the resolution but has not yet set a date.

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