Juvenile justice advocates say kids in Maine are serving longer sentences in prison for petty, non-violent offenses than adults who commit misdemeanors do. And they say the time kids spend in detention comes at a high financial cost and result in poor and even traumatic outcomes.
Those are just a few of the reasons dozens of children's advocacy groups and attorneys are supporting a bill to rewrite key provisions of juvenile law, though state prosecutors are urging caution.
More than 80 percent of the 30 kids currently committed to the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland are there for minor offenses. Take the case of Skye Gosselin, now 20. She told members of the Legislature's Judiciary Committee that she was arrested in the 7th grade after false allegations of harassment were made by three girls who had been bullying her at school. She says she was put in a police car and taken to the police station as her classmates looked on.
"I was so humiliated and scared,” says Gosselin. “There were kids coming up and taking pictures of me in the cop car...I didn't understand what I did. He took a mug shot, fingerprints...I was being treated as if I was some kind of crazed criminal instead of what I was, a little girl."
Gosselin says she spent six hours in police custody. From there things only got worse. Gosselin missed a court date and was put on probation. As a result, she says she lost her friends, got into more trouble at school and was eventually sentenced to Long Creek. She was 13 years old.
Rep. Victoria Morales, an attorney from South Portland, wants the system to change. Her bill, LD 1684, would address what she calls "glaring, long-standing problems in Maine's Juvenile code."
"Maine law currently has no minimum age for sentencing children to youth prison in Long Creek. LD 1684 sets that age at 14,” says Morales. “Why? Research shows that children 13-years-old and younger, based on their biological development, are less capable of intentionally committing a crime, of having the requisite means to be held criminally responsible for their behavior."
In addition, studies show that the experience of being incarcerated at a young age causes irreversible trauma for kids, which Morales says is in direct conflict with the Juvenile code's goals of rehabilitation. Instead, they are more likely to reoffend. LD 1684 would establish age 12 as the minimum age at which a child could be prosecuted. It would require judicial review of commitments to Long Creek every 90 days. It would also ensure that kids have access to an attorney at every step of the process, something Skye Gosselin says she did not get for about six months.
"What I needed, instead of Long Creek, was someone to have helped me that first day, someone who believed my side of the story before jumping to conclusions,” Gosselin says. “Also, instead of probation there should be programs in place to help kids, instead of just throwing them in the juvenile system in the first place."
Christine Thibeault, a juvenile prosecutor from Cumberland County, says she and her colleagues support the bill's intent but they are concerned that it does not create resources needed to divert kids away from the criminal justice system by addressing their mental health, substance use and other needs in their own communities.
"I'm here on behalf of prosecutors not because we think the current system is adequate,” Thibeault says. “It is not. All of the reforms you've heard about today are necessary."
Thibeault says that requiring judges to review commitments every 90 days could further strain the system. She asked lawmakers to wait until a newly-formed state task force charged with examining ways to reduce youth incarceration completes its work early next year.
"Please, hold off on this bill,” she says. “Important changes need to be made but they need to be made carefully."
Others, however, say the need for reform is urgent. They say Maine's policies have not kept pace with research about best practices and that vulnerable kids are being put at risk to be hurt or to fail, especially minority and LGBTQ kids who are disproportionately represented at Long Creek.
Mary Bonauto is a civil rights project director with GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders, who shared the story of a 16-year-old boy she met during his first month of incarceration.
"He was assaulted regularly,” says Bonauto. “He was called many foul names for gay people. He was urged among other things to tie a noose to hang himself. Epithets were scrawled on his door. His room was trashed. People urinated on his bed and as this bullying continued his anxiety and depression, which were already existing, increased and he self-isolated."
Bonauto says he was a boy who had a great sense of humor, loved poetry and writing songs, but did not get the support he needed in Long Creek or after he got out.
"This precious young person is no longer with us,” Bonauto says. “But he was loved and he had so much to contribute."
Advocates say Maine has done a good job reducing the number of kids at Long Creek over the past decade but kids who are sentenced to Long Creek must stay a minimum of one year. According to one district attorney, that is a more severe penalty than what adults in Maine face for a class-D misdemeanor.
Updated 10:03 a.m. May 22, 2019 - An original version of this post used an old name for GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders. We apologize for the error