SOUTH PORTLAND — A Portland legislator has drafted a bill he hopes will help the state reduce its reliance on Long Creek Youth Development Center until it’s no longer needed.
Rather than simply calling for the closing of Long Creek, state Rep. Michael Brennan, D-Portland, said his bill would establish a task force to “develop a plan for what type of programming and services the community needs to reduce and eventually eliminate the need for incarceration.”
Nationally, there has been a shift towards community-based models for juvenile justice, Brennan said, where youth have been placed in group homes that favor therapy over punishment.
The task force would look into practices and community-based efforts that have proved to lead to a declining population of incarcerated juveniles, he said.
“The number of youths being detained has been dramatically reduced over the last two decades,” said Brennan, a former Portland mayor and city councilor who worked at the 675 Westbrook St. center for a brief time in the early 1990s.
Colin O’Neal, associate commissioner for Juvenile Community Corrections, which oversees Maine’s incarcerated and detained youth, said he did not know the exact number of full-time residents at the center. He estimated it is between 40 and 50, including those who are awaiting sentencing.
Long Creek is in the city’s West End Residential District, which permits uses such as museums, home occupations, government and municipal buildings, recreational areas, and congregate housing and care facilities, according to South Portland Community Planner Stephen Puleo.
It houses males and females under the age of 21 who have been convicted of felony crimes and youths who have been charged with a serious crime, but have yet to be sentenced. In recent years, the center’s population has evolved to include more youths with mental health and substance abuse issues.
In 2015, the state’s only other youth correctional center, Mountain View Correctional Facility in Charleston, was converted into a facility for adult offenders with complex medical needs.
The past two years have been tumultuous at Long Creek, which saw its first suicide in decades in November 2016. The following March, three Long Creek residents escaped during a camp outing, stole a car and crashed it. Less than a month later, former Superintendent Jeffrey Merrill resigned amid an unexplained investigation. An independent audit conducted in 2017 concluded Long Creek lacked leadership, was understaffed and not equipped to handle the mental health needs of many of its residents.
In March, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine filed a lawsuit against Long Creek, the Department of Corrections, and medical and dental providers on behalf of an 11-year-old boy who was allegedly beaten by corrections officers and denied adequate medical treatment.
Brennan said studies have shown detaining and incarcerating youths has negative short- and long-term impacts.
“When states develop community-based programming and settings, the long-term outcomes are better,” he said.
If approved, Brennan said, the task force would be comprised of legislators and community members appointed by the speaker of the House and Senate president.
“That is still a ways away from happening,” Brennan said, noting the draft is now being revised. After revisions are complete he expects the proposed bill will be referred to the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee for a public hearing.
O’Neal said since he has not yet seen Brennan’s bill, he did not feel comfortable discussing any potential outcomes.
“Right now, it’s all speculative,” he said.
If formed, Brennan said the committee would hopefully meet before the end of 2019 and present recommendations at the start of the next legislative session.
One of those recommendations could include keeping parts of the center operational, he added.
“Their focus would be to determine the future of Long Creek … which might evolve into something else over the next several years,” Brennan said. “We’re now in a position where we can reduce our reliance on youth correctional facilities, as many states across the nation have. How quickly that can happen will be a question for the task force.”