A report released Tuesday on young adults in Maine’s criminal justice system calls for expanding diversion and treatment programs, which researchers say can help offenders avoid developing criminal records that could follow them for years.

“Maine is doing really well with diverting a lot of youth away from involvement with the justice system,” said Jillian Foley, lead author of the report from the University of Southern Maine’s Catherine E. Cutler Institute. “However, when these young people reach this early adulthood period of time, they tend to age out of a lot of those programs and support.”

Following a national trend, “emerging adults” between the ages of 18 and 24 are overrepresented in Maine’s criminal justice system.

The study found that roughly 12% of Mainers who fell into that age range as of April 2021, had at some point had contact with the Department of Corrections.

Outcomes within that group varied significantly.

Black men in that age group were twice as likely to have contact with the corrections department than their white peers.


While 10% of those who were confined as teens were later reincarcerated as adults before the age of 25, only 1% of the much larger group of young adults who were never locked up as teens went on to become incarcerated as adults

Erica King, the report’s co-author, credited some of that difference to MDOC’s efforts to divert many juvenile offenders out of the courtroom and into programs that help them take accountability and connect them with health care, education and other resources intended to address the root causes of crime.

Teenagers and younger adults will always be more likely to engage in risky and impulsive behavior because of their still-developing brains, said Wendy Allen, who manages the Restorative Justice Institute of Maine’s young adult diversion program. But diversion efforts can help young people grow from mistakes instead of developing a negative self-image that can lead to further crime, she said.

In 2022, only 1% of the 312 people who went through that restorative justice program reoffended, Allen said. 

Yet while some programs in Maine do a good job of targeting certain areas and age groups, a shortage of options in many parts of the state creates a flawed system of “justice by geography,” said King, who noted emerging adults qualify for fewer programs than juveniles and therefore are disproportionately affected, she said.

She added that locking those young adults up can add to state costs for prosecution and diminish the workforce.


“It surprises me that in a state with workforce development (problems) we have not considered the potential economic benefit that 18-to-25-year-olds could perform for our communities if we had pathways to employment and post-secondary education,” King said. “If we were more thoughtful about diversion as not just a youth justice practice but an adult criminal justice system practice, I think a lot of those people could engage in restorative justice and community-based accountability, and we would be better off.”

The Restorative Justice Institute of Maine’s program, which works with the Cumberland County District Attorney’s Office, is currently the state’s only diversion program targeting this age range, Allen said.

The group has been working to expand to other counties, but DAs have been reluctant to pay for the program, she said, even though its cost – $100 per participant – would save the state huge amounts of money by pulling offenders out of the court system.

“I think there’s a lot of conversation on wanting things to get better,” she said. “Putting the words into actions is what needs to happen.”

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