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Changes coming to Maine's juvenile justice system

Rep. Charlotte Warren of the Criminal Justice Committee says she feels that the facility is costing Mainers too much money.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s Corrections Commissioner Randy Liberty is working to stop doing what many Mainers seem to think should not be done anymore: locking up young people who commit serious crimes.

Liberty is leading the department’s effort to further reduce the number of juveniles being held at the Long Creek Youth Development Center, the state’s prison facility for those under 18. They have clearly been making progress—the facility, designed to hold 250 people, was holding just 27 as of Monday. 

But even those reduced numbers generate controversy. Ask Rep. Charlotte Warren (D-Hallowell), co-chair of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee.

“50 percent of the kids who are there are there because there is no other place for them,” Warren said. “Not because they’re criminals but because there’s no other place for them.”

She said the lack of appropriate facilities for young people with serious and potentially violent mental health conditions results in some of them being taken to Long Creek. Others who are held may have committed serious crimes. 

But there has been a growing call for the state to stop incarcerating young people. At Monday’s public hearing on the Corrections Department budget, more than a few challenged the overall size of that budget—more than $200 million per year—for all of Corrections—and said more of that money should be spent on drug treatment and mental health care instead, to keep young people away from crime.

Rep. Warren said the simple fact that Long Creek still has a staff of 175 people is unacceptable.

“Because there are now 28 youth there, (yet) we are still paying for every piece, including staff, that we did when there were 250. It's costing Maine people over $660,000 per year, per child. I don’t think there’s any Mainer thinks that’s a good use of our money."  

And Liberty agrees. He told the Legislators a new plan for juvenile justice will be unveiled next week, and part of their goal is to find better ways to house and treat Maine’s minors.

“The work we’ve done with the juvenile justice task force…indicated we should reinvest more in the community, take some resources appropriated for the facility, and put them into the community,” the Commissioner said. 

And he also indicated a parallel goal: “having less reliance on incarceration for our youth.”

Rep. Warren said she is hoping the plan will rely on several smaller, community-based facilities that can help kids get help sooner, get them the treatment and other services they need, and save money in the process.

She said the Commissioner is currently scheduled to explain the new plan to the Criminal Justice committee next Monday.

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