Maine’s juvenile justice system is failing our young people. The 2016 suicide of a transgender boy in Long Creek Youth Development Center (Long Creek) brought to light a range of deficiencies common to the youth prison model, including the overrepresentation of LGTBQ youth, girls, and youth with mental health needs in the facility; harmful conditions; and a lack of appropriate alternate responses. There are also racial and ethnic disparities: youth of color represent an estimated 22% of the youth at Long Creek, nearly three times their representation in Maine’s youth population at large.
Multiple national and state reports point to the systemic failure of the state to response to young people’s needs. LGBTQ+ young people from poor communities in Maine continue to fall through the cracks left by a broken social services infrastructure and into emergency rooms, shelters, prison and jail. Pervasive homelessness is tied to dramatic gentrification and to our state’s devastating opiate crisis, which has been exaggerated by funding cuts to lifesaving resources. Long Creek is inappropriately being used to house young people with severe mental illnesses and cannot successfully treat them or keep them safe. Maine spends more than $250,000 per year to incarcerate a young person at Long Creek; at an annual cost to the state of approximately $15 million.
Reimagining Youth Justice
While Maine has decreased the numbers of youth committed to Long Creek since 2010, questions remain not only about the safety and efficacy of institutions like Long Creek, but also about what is happening with young people who don’t end up in Long Creek. The vision for a coordinated system of community-based, integrated services for youth across Maine has yet to be realized and is particularly problematic given the growing body of research that shows that incarceration doesn’t make us safer, doesn’t help young people grow into productive adults and can actually cause additional harm.
It’s time for those in positions of power to listen to those most affected by the decisions made about public policy – and the tax dollars that follow. It’s time to create the future of youth justice, by investing public dollars in a continuum of community-based alternatives to incarceration for Maine’s young people.