Maine governor vetoes bill to close state's only youth prison
"Responsible juvenile justice reform also takes into account the needs of public safety," wrote Gov. Janet Mills
By Kevin Miller
Portland Press Herald, Maine
AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Janet Mills has vetoed a bill requiring the Maine Department of Corrections to close Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland within two years.
In her veto message to lawmakers last week, Mills called the bill "fundamentally flawed" and "a simplistic solution to a complex problem" because it would close Maine's only youth detention facility before alternative sites are available. The bill would require the state to develop a plan to close Long Creek — which currently houses just a few dozen young people — by June 30, 2023, and re-direct the facility's roughly $19 million budget to a range of "community-based alternatives."
"If this bill were to become law, Maine would become the only state in the nation without a secure facility to serve the needs of youth who require detention for some period because they represent a risk to themselves or others in the course of their rehabilitation," wrote Mills, a former Maine attorney general and prosecutor. "Responsible juvenile justice reform also takes into account the needs of public safety. I object to this legislation for its failure to do so."
Mills' veto of the Long Creek bill, L.D. 1668, could derail, or at least delay, a move that juvenile justice reform advocates have been pursuing for years.
The measure narrowly passed the Maine Senate this month on a vote of 19-15 — far short of the two-thirds majority supporters would need to override a gubernatorial veto. The House voted 81-57 to pass the bill, also below the super-majority needed for an override.
But the bill's sponsor, Democratic Rep. Grayson Lookner of Portland, said receiving majority support in both legislative chambers is the closest closure advocates have come. Lookner said he and the youth coalition behind the bill will "do all that we can" to reverse the veto, but added that Long Creek's future is limited regardless of outcome next week on the House and Senate floors.
Lookner said there is growing recognition in Maine and other states that youths who make mistakes or act in desperation need help and support, not punitive institutionalization.
"The bottom line is that Long Creek is closing one way or another," Lookner said. "It will be empty of youth within a few years no matter what happens ... so in the end we will be able to declare victory and say we don't have youth prisons in Maine and we will be able to say we have ... more restorative justice for youth."
Policymakers in other states are examining whether to shutter youth detention centers. In neighboring New Hampshire, for instance, the Legislature was slated to vote last week on a budget item that would close that state's aging youth facility amid recent allegations of abuse.
Supporters of L.D. 1668 argue that Long Creek is too large, old and antiquated to adequately provide the type of restorative care and mental health support needed to help young people avoid becoming mired in the criminal justice system for years or a lifetime. The facility has also grappled with high staff turnover and been the target of several lawsuits in recent years alleging mistreatment of youths.
There are currently only 31 young people being housed at Long Creek, which was built to accommodate more than 200. A 2020 report by a national policy group hired to examine Maine's juvenile justice system also raised alarms that young people who pose no threat to themselves or others are often detained at Long Creek because there is nowhere else for the state to send them.
Mills said the Department of Corrections worked closely with a multi-year juvenile justice task force as well as the outside policy organization to implement systemic reforms. Those initiatives include opening two transitional residences for those leaving Long Creek and shifting $6 million to other community-based programs.
"These initiatives have already shown real results," Mills wrote to lawmakers. "DOC's expansion of community-based programs and services statewide has undoubtedly prevented numerous at-risk youth from entering the system."
Some of those pushing to close Long Creek strongly criticized Mills' veto, however.
"Governor Mills had the power to end the nightmare that young people in Long Creek are experiencing by creating a plan to close Long Creek and invest in a safe and healthy future for our young people," Ladi Nzeyimana, youth organizer with Maine Youth Justice, said in a statement. "Young people are calling for a community center and housing for Maine youth in place of the prison. Governor Mills had the opportunity to shift the punitive and violent tradition of the criminal legal system and chose to maintain the status quo."
Lookner said many of the concerns Mills raised in her veto letter would likely be addressed in the plan that the Maine Department of Corrections would be required to prepare for closing Long Creek. That plan would be due to the Legislature by year's end.
(c)2021 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine)