Echoing the findings shared at a juvenile justice summit in Maine last Fall, the Muskie School of Public Service and the University of Maine School of Law are calling for a shift away from youth prisons like Long Creek in South Portland to non-residential community-based programs and services. And they’ve produced a report that suggests the transition will save money and produce better outcomes for kids.
It’s part of a national shift in thinking about what’s best for youth in the juvenile justice system. As studies have shown that youth incarceration in large facilities increases recidivism and that more kids of color are often confined, states have moved toward community-based alternatives.
“We’re seeing in research and data that we can do a better job by young people and by taxpayers by serving young people in their communities,” says Erica King.
She is a senior policy associate at the University of Southern Maine who helped author the report. It finds that incarcerating youth is generally less safe, especially for low-risk offenders and for those with complex mental health needs. Long Creek has come under scrutiny since 2016 after the suicide of a transgender teen. Against that backdrop, there’s also the issue of cost. The price tag for a single youth at Long Creek is pegged at $250,000. But King credits the Maine Department of Corrections for recently undergoing an extensive audit, sharing the data and being willing to use it for change.
“I think they’re doing the best they can but a lot of the issues that young people are struggling with at that facility are a result of upstream challenges that had we invested more rigorously in community-based services for them they may not find themselves in a period of incarceration,” she says.
The report finds that community-based services — including behavioral health, access to education, restorative justice and other intensive non-residential programs for youth are severely limited in Maine. It recommends mapping out resources in communities, conducting a review of service gaps for at-risk youth and integrating public and private funding to help those who are served by multiple state agencies.
In the meantime, the DOC has pledged to reduce confinement at Long Creek by another 30%. And the Department of Health and Human Services says it is exploring a plan to offer intensive psychiatric care to youth with severe behavioral health disorders. In a written statement a spokesperson for the department says the project will serve a handful of individuals who are currently at Long Creek.