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Politics

Cumberland County DA candidates agree on closing Long Creek youth prison

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Cumberland County; Jackie Sartoris
Cumberland County District Attorney Jonathan Sahrbeck (left) and his challenger in next month's primary election, Kennebec County Assistant DA Jackie Sartoris.

The two Democrats running for Cumberland County district attorney agreed on Monday that the state should close Maine's only youth prison and support expanding programs to keep young people out of the criminal justice system.

Cumberland County District Attorney Jonathan Sahrbeck and his challenger in next month's primary election, Kennebec County Assistant District Attorney Jackie Sartoris, are locked in an unusually heated and expensive race for the seat.

But during a virtual forum organized by Maine Youth Justice, a grassroots advocacy group, the two candidates agreed on the need to expand community-based diversion programs, work on youth homelessness and address bias within the criminal justice system.

Maine Youth Justice has been among the most vocal proponents of closing Long Creek Youth Development Center. The aging South Portland facility can hold more than 200 young people but typically only houses a few dozen. But while the Maine Department of Corrections and the administration of Gov. Janet Mills say the long-term plan is to close Long Creek, they have successfully resisted legislative efforts to force a closure.

"It goes to show you why Jackie and I are in agreement over this,” Sahrbeck said. “It is time to find that alternative. It is time to close Long Creek."

Sahrbeck was first elected as an independent in 2018 and said his office's juvenile unit is focusing heavily on "diversion" to place young people into alternative programs and keep them in their communities. The Cape Elizabeth resident also said he has been working to make sure that prosecutors in his office understand the long-term harm that can result when young people are incarcerated and the societal factors that sometimes make it even more difficult for minorities, such as Black youth, to receive equal or fair treatment.

"We really need to understand that when we are making decisions that we do as prosecutors,” he said.

Sartoris called Long Creek an "anachronism" from a time decades ago when the state expected to incarcerate large numbers of youth. She said the popular support for closing Long Creek speaks to how thinking has evolved but she acknowledged there is still a need to educate the public — and decision-makers — about the issue.

"I think there needs to be an across-the-board strategy of outreach to the public to explain to them why closure makes sense, what the alternatives are and how they can effectively advocate right from home,” Sartoris said.

Sartoris, who lives in Brunswick, also said the state needs to do a better job of tracking and analyzing data to better understand why youth who are Black, indigenous or people of color are often more likely to be arrested and charged.

"I don't believe that BIPOC individuals are simply out there committing a lot more crimes,” Sartoris said. “I think they are being surveilled a lot more. That's been our nation's history. And I think Maine has an opportunity right now to start to address this."

Sahrbeck agreed on the need for more data and said his office has been working with the University of Southern Maine and other groups to gather and analyze the information.

More than $300,000 has been spent on the Cumberland County DA race so far, with much of that coming a Washington, D.C.-based group backing Sartoris. Whoever wins the June 14 Democratic primary will not face a Republican opponent for Cumberland County DA seat in November.