Maine's Chief Justice Leigh Saufley joined civil rights and children's advocates, lawmakers and members of Gov. Janet Mills' cabinet for the first meeting of a newly-created task force to examine Maine's juvenile justice system.
The 30-member task force will be looking at a alternatives to juvenile incarceration. Justice Saufley says a similar task force achieved success ten years ago by slashing the number of kids in detention in Maine but she says it never met a second goal to establish a community-based system of treatment and placement programs.
"Only a robust continuum of community-based programs can ensure that Maine's youth will receive individualized treatment that is appropriate to that child's needs," Saufley says.
Saufley says determining how to provide that continuum will require the collection of data, an updated analysis of what treatment works, and a focus on outcomes.
"So that we are using scarce Maine dollars to their very best value for our youth," says Saufley.
Studies show that incarcerating kids fails to reduce recidivism and increases the likelihood that they will drop out of high school.
Saufley says the judicial branch is committed to doing whatever is fair and necessary to making the new system work. And she urged members of the task force to get on top of what she says is a growing problem: the disproportionate number of minorities involved with law enforcement and a growing number of LGBTQ kids in the juvenile system.
Democratic Rep. Charlotte Warren of Hallowell, co-chair of the Legislature's Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee says it is a concern she shares.
"I remember that the first time I ever toured Long Creek, I got in my car, and I cried all the way back to Hallowell because just, you walk around and you can see the inherent racism in our system,” Warren says. “You do not anywhere, at least around where I live, see the number of kids of color that you do when you walk around Long Creek."
Over the past decade the number of kids detained at the Long Creek Development Center in South Portland has dropped from about 300 to 50. And while that is largely viewed as a success, Corrections Commissioner Randy Liberty says it costs more than $300,000 dollars to detain a single youth for a year at Long Creek.
"We feel as though if we can reinvest what we currently spend into the communities and do some prevention work and work on the causation factors, we can be successful," Liberty says.
The work of the task force will be guided by a bill introduced by Senator Michael Brennan of Portland and by previous work of the Juvenile Justice Advisory Group. The task force plans to report out recommendations to the Legislature by early next year.