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Carroll Conley is the executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine.
The Mills legislature and administration have wrestled in recent years with how best to reform Maine’s juvenile corrections system. While discussions and planning regarding what kind of safe confinement is needed for Maine’s youth, everyone involved seems to agree on one thing: most children don’t need to be incarcerated; they need access to services in their community to help them find the right path.
According to the 2020 Assessment of Maine’s Juvenile Justice Systems at the request of the Juvenile Justice Advisory Group, 53% of young people detained at the Long Creek Youth Development Center were detained for the purpose of “providing care”, rather than because they posed a risk to themselves or to the public security. In 70% of the cases where young people were detained for more than 30 days, they were there because they were waiting for a placement or a community program.
These statistics are our children, and they are heartbreaking.
What this clearly says is that some of the children of Long Creek are here because we have no better place to serve them. Can you imagine your niece, your neighbor, locked up in a juvenile prison because there was no adequate housing for children in crisis in the community? What would be the impact of those locked prison doors on their psyche, their soul? What message does this send them about who they are and if they matter to our community?
Our understanding is that a overwhelming majority of incarcerated children are survivors of trauma and many are victims of sexual and physical abuse. In a recent evaluation, up to 48% of Long Creek girls had documented concerns or confirmation that they were victims of commercial sexual exploitation.
None of these kids need to be tied down and most of them don’t need jail cells. They need behavioral therapy and a safe place to sleep. They need three full meals, school, and job training. If they have hurt someone, they need to come to terms with that and engage in restorative justice, correcting their past wrongs as best they can.
LD 756 is a starting point to move the discussion from simply closing facilities to creating much-needed services. It starts with the requirement to assess how to meet the needs of each child safely and effectively. It provides modest funding for the programs and services needed in the community to meet these needs.
For example, it funds the Department of Education‘s restorative justice school programs, mentoring services, workforce development, and educational and vocational programs. If we could find a way to keep these kids safe and successful in school, that would be a great start.
It also offers funding for the Department of Health and Human Services and MaineHousing for transitional housing services, emergency or crisis housing services, and other services related to housing with support services for minors. . It’s hard to do well in therapy or school if you don’t have a safe place to sleep and live. It also provides funding to the Office of Child and Family Services to keep young victims of commercial exploitation safe in the community, rather than resorting to locking them up to protect them from harm.
The Bible teaches us that children are an inheritance from the Lord; therefore, we have a moral obligation as a society to meet the needs of our children in the best way possible so that they can grow and prosper. Incarcerating a youth simply because they need behavioral health treatment or are at risk of being trafficked is unacceptable. If the appropriate services to meet the needs of these at-risk youth are not currently available, we must do everything we can to make them available. We can and must do better.