A newly released review of the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland has found serious deficiencies, including conditions described as dangerous and harmful to staff and residents. It also recommends that the state completely reassess its juvenile justice system.
State lawmakers who have just reviewed the report say it’s time for action.
The Center for Children’s Law and Policy, a national organization focusing on youth justice policy, has found that Long Creek has been chronically understaffed and is not equipped to handle the complex and serious mental health needs of many of those placed there by the state court system.
The review praises staff for their efforts to provide needed services, but concludes they are overwhelmed. And the study found that too many young offenders are sent to Long Creek because there are no alternatives.
“The science is clear that for children to develop properly, they should not be in prison,” says Alison Beyea with the ACLU of Maine.
Beyea says it’s time to close Long Creek and rethink how the state treats juveniles in its justice system.
“They need to be in community-based health care facilities. They need to be with their families. They need the services to get them back on the right path,” she says.
GLAD, a group that advocates for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth, says the report should serve as a wakeup call to the state that it needs to do a better job providing safety as well as support services for LGBTQ youth. The report stated current policies in the area are insufficient.
The review also uncovered evidence of inappropriate use of force on residents, overuse of room confinement and the criminal charging of youth with mental health problems and disabilities.
The Maine Department of Corrections did not provide a response to the study, but the co-chairs of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee say the issues are longstanding and are known to the committee.
“Because we do not have the facilities in their communities to support them, we are incarcerating them at Long Creek. That is wrong. It doesn’t work. It costs us more money,” says Hallowell Democrat Charlotte Warren, the House co-chair of the panel.
Warren says the failure to provide adequate, community-based mental health services has resulted in huge costs. The state pays about $250,000 a year per resident at Long Creek, or about $15 million a year. Warren says the problems at Long Creek have been ignored, and it’s causing a crisis.
“My intent was to take up these issues that we know of years ago,” she says.
But the committee has not acted on legislation that would address the problems cited in the study. State Sen. Kim Rosen, a Republican from Bucksport who co-chairs the committee, says Long Creek should be fixed, but not closed.
“We can’t shut it down, it’s too soon. I have certainly toured this facility several times and it does a lot of good things also,” she says.
Rosen says she is supportive of the approach used in Missouri, which is mentioned in the study, that combines a mix of corrections facilities and intensive mental health programs and community-based mental health services.
The study indicates that as many as half of the residents at Long Creek would be better served in community-based mental health services.
“Well, in everything I have read about that, it works. And I am all for changes that work and it does work it is proven,” she says.
Both Warren and Rosen say they will try to find carryover bills to address the problems at Long Creek, but if that doesn’t work, they say they will ask leaders to allow new legislation in to be considered during the session that begins next month.