SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — Maine lawmakers are taking up a bill this session that would rewrite key provisions of Maine's juvenile law.

A proposal would establish the age of 12 as the minimum age when a child could be prosecuted. 14 would be the minimum age for incarceration.  

Right now, there is no age limit.

It would also ensure that kids have access to an attorney at every step of the process. 

Prosecutors say more changes are needed for the system but not at the expense of public safety.

Maine currently has no minimum age for sentencing children to the Long Creek Correctional Center. 

But Rep. Victoria Morales wants to change that. her bill would set the minimum age for someone sent to Long Creek at 14.

 Also, any child younger than 12 would not be tried in the court system.

Morales said research shows children who placed behind bars are more likely to re-offend.

"More than 6 months of incarceration is harmful and produces poor outcomes than less time. And that is something this bill also does, it removed the mandatory one year sentence," Morales said.

Maine has had very few cases involving children under the age of 12 committing serious crimes. 

In 2012 a 10-year old girl was charged with manslaughter in the death of an infant whose mother said had been suffocated. At that time, the girl, who was not identified, was the youngest person to be charged with manslaughter in 25 years. But she was not sent to Long Creek.

"She was in the DHHS system, we handled that by providing her with the care she needed," Morales said.

Christine Thibeault, the juvenile prosecutor for Cumberland County.  

"It is not as simple as the state wants to put kids behind bars for minor offenses, that is not at all what is happening," Thibeault said. 

She said the bill does not create programs needed for children who have mental health, substance use, and other problems. She said reforms are needed but setting a minimum age for incarceration could lead to felony cases being transferred to the adult system.

"You will see prosecutors are very uncomfortable with that diminished resource of Long Creek and would ask the court to transfer the juvenile to an adult court and potentially an adult sentencing," Thibeault said.

A national consultant conducted a report for the Department of Corrections, it found that juveniles committed for non-violent crimes, including property crimes, drug crimes and disorderly conduct, not crimes against people would be better served in community settings.

The report is expected to be part of recommendations taken up by the state's Juvenile Justice Advisory Group which is examining the state's juvenile justice system. The group will meet on February 25 in Augusta. 

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