On Friday, lawmakers made a last-minute move to close the Long Creek Youth Development Center, replacing the text of another bill with new language that will provide a timeline for the closure of the only youth prison in the state. State.
Members of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee were due to begin work on a different measure submitted by Rep. Grayson Lookner, D-Portland, to ban the use of pepper spray, Tasers and restraint techniques in Long Creek. Dozens of people testified last week about the controversial use-of-force tactics, including Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty and advocates for more humane treatment of incarcerated youth.
But before lawmakers began the discussion on Friday, Lookner said he wanted to change course.
“The direction I want to go … is to set a closing date for Long Creek,” Lookner said. “I heard what everyone is saying. I know there are a lot of differing opinions within this committee, the administration and the Legislative Assembly on the best way forward.
Some Republicans on the committee were skeptical of Lookner’s original bill and immediately balked at its wholesale replacement.
“‘I’m afraid this has gone…from a use of force (bill) to a totally different bill, and it’s like a new bill,'” said Sen. Scott Cyrway, R -Albion, who wanted to focus on the 29 times Long Creek residents seriously assaulted staff.
Rep. Richard Pickett, R-Dixfield, moved to vote against the original bill that focused on banning use-of-force techniques. Rep. Shelley Rudnicki, R-Fairfield, agreed, saying if Lookner wanted to submit a bill to close Long Creek, he should have done so, instead of “hijacking a bill.”
“I’m against closing Long Creek, because I’m against putting these young people, these teenagers, in environments that could be detrimental to the people around them,” Rudnicki said. “They’re at this facility for a reason.”
Lookner’s maneuver has been divisive but still has a chance of succeeding.
Five lawmakers, four Democrats and one independent, backed the amendment to shut down the juvenile prison. Four lawmakers — two Democrats and two Republicans — were absent. If two of the absentee lawmakers vote for Lookner’s new bill, it has a chance of being flagged out of committee as the preferred version.
ONE GOAL LONG FENCE
Youth advocates have been calling for Long Creek to be closed for years. A transgender teenager killed himself at the facility in 2017, the first suicide in decades. It was a wake-up call to corrections officials and lawmakers, and since then the state has commissioned report after report examining juvenile justice across the state and in Long Creek in particular.
Tension boiled over again last summer, when the facility was rocked by seven incidents of unrest in two months. Youths took over homes, took action and destroyed property, causing thousands of dollars in damage. The incidents led to the ousting of the superintendent and the reassignment of a senior corrections official. Faced with chronic staffing and a lack of programming, young people faced overwhelming boredom and took action to have their needs met, experts have found.
The Department of Corrections created an action plan to reduce secure confinement for youth, which included moving $6 million from the $18 million budget for Long Creek to open two halfway houses for youth leaving the jail.
A similar bill to close Long Creek by 2023, which Lookner also sponsored, passed both the House and Senate last summer, but died with a veto from Governor Janet Mills. , who said it was unrealistic for the state to close its only safe facility for young people without a replacement.
This time around, Lookner said he wanted to work with the Department of Corrections to establish a realistic timeline that would coincide with the opening of any new secure facilities the state builds.
This process is already underway, including an effort to build smaller, safer facilities where young people can be closer to their families and home communities. These measures are in line with recommendations from national juvenile justice experts, who say centralized prisons like Long Creek are less effective at rehabilitating young people because they separate them from their families, home communities and life. school.
PROGRESS IS SLOW
But the process of transition from the centralized model has progressed slowly and is still in its early stages. Building a new network of service providers and facilities to provide therapeutic support to children takes time and is a “monumental task”, said Associate Commissioner Christine Thibeault, a longtime juvenile prosecutor who is now responsible for the youth corrections for the state and oversees transformation.
“There is going to be a need for secure containment,” Thibeault said. “It doesn’t need to be in the configuration it’s currently in, but we need a full color palette to work.”
With no set date to close Long Creek, the new, smaller facilities the Department of Corrections is building will mean a net increase in youth incarceration beds statewide, Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, said in a statement. that most proponents of juvenile justice reform reject. .
Rep. Lois Reckitt, D-South Portland, pointed to the “phenomenal amount” needed to keep Long Creek open to about two dozen residents, and said that at some point, resources invested in this facility must be redirected to the new facilities.
“I think we are making a mistake if we think we can solve the difficulties that some of us are feeling at Long Creel all at once,” Reckitt said. “If I could wave a wand, I would say (to the Department of Corrections), come back to us at the start of the next session, give us a plan for when you can close LC, and we will be with you to help you. commission these new facilities.
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