Nearly three years ago, Maine lawmakers hoped to be in the vanguard of a national movement to transform how governments deal with teenagers who break the law.
The legislators passed a bill aimed at closing the state’s only youth prison and expanding programs with a better record of rehabilitating adolescents. But Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat and longtime prosecutor, vetoed the June 2021 measure, even though the facility, Long Creek Youth Development Center, had repeatedly been faulted for harmful treatment and dangerous conditions.
Now, Maine has become a cautionary tale about the path to reform. The state sends far fewer adolescents to Long Creek than it did a decade ago.
But it hasn’t made comparable strides to bolster how it holds accountable and supports youth in the rest of the juvenile justice system, allowing chronic problems to persist, an examination by The New York Times and The Bangor Daily News found.
Despite Maine’s efforts to establish smaller, secure alternatives to Long Creek, none are currently in operation. Officials have not fixed the severe shortage of community-based intervention programs intended to catch delinquency early. Many in the juvenile justice system are not getting the help, required by state law, to change their behavior.
And despite a federal investigation, state-commissioned inquiries, a task force and multiple recommendations to overhaul Maine’s handling of troubled teens, the state has not come up with any comprehensive blueprint to do so.
The governor and her administration, by many accounts, have failed to provide leadership — or offer a clear vision — to resolve the longstanding issues. And lawmakers have largely retreated.
Meanwhile, dire consequences are playing out in communities across Maine, according to interviews with dozens of law enforcement and corrections officials, health care providers, watchdog groups, parents, children and others.
Families described watching, powerless, as their teenagers escalated out of control because local intervention programs were not available. In Maine’s rural northernmost county, for example, certain intensive services that help steer adolescents from entering the justice system are not offered. The wait-list for another behavioral health program can reach 200 days. Getting in to see a therapist can take a year.
Multiple police departments expressed frustration at having few tools to deal with teens accused of persistent or serious offenses. Officers have issued multiple criminal summonses to the same teens without seeing meaningful outcomes, they said. And they worry that something terrible — a violent crime or a teen’s death — will happen first.
Alex Gaylor, deputy chief of the Rockland Police Department, said the approach of the juvenile justice system seemed to be, “‘We have a kid being a problem, so we are going to summons them and let the courts and rest of the system take care of it.’” He added, “But they’re not.”
Two 17-year-old boys who had frequent encounters with the Rockland department echoed that. “I’d get caught and they’d slap me with another charge,” one said. “I was thinking, “I’m getting all these charges and nothing is happening.”
For his friend, getting sent to live with relatives in another state was a wake-up call. His own misconduct, the teen said, started to change only after a near-fatal drug overdose.
In desperation, the police and parents — some of whom say they are afraid of their own children — have increasingly turned to emergency rooms for help. Many of those adolescents do not suffer from classic psychiatric disorders but have chronic, aggressive behavioral issues, transforming hospitals into “new forms of detention,” said Dr. Lindsey Tweed, former president of the Maine Council of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
Teenagers sometimes stay for days, even weeks, receiving no treatment while awaiting placements elsewhere. They live under conditions that some hospital staff members called inhumane: locked wards, no daylight, few activities.
Parents say they have no alternative. Michelle Richardson’s 16-year-old daughter was repeatedly taken by the police to a local E.R. last year. She suffered from mood disorders and assaulted family members during outbursts, her mother said.
But residential treatment facilities kept rejecting her. When the hospital eventually resisted too, Ms. Richardson — who by then had pressed assault charges — hoped Long Creek might hold the girl temporarily. But corrections officials refused to detain her there.
Across the country, the number of juveniles charged with crimes has plummeted as states arrest fewer adolescents, shifting away from the harsh crackdowns of the 1990s to embrace research showing that exposure to the criminal justice system, especially correctional settings, often does them more harm than good.
Populations in juvenile prisons have shrunk, and some states, including Maine, now maintain just one.
Maine’s juvenile code calls for rehabilitating youth at home, if possible, while protecting the public. In recent years, law enforcement and corrections officials have increasingly sought to divert adolescents from the justice system altogether.
Police referrals to prosecutors dropped nearly 60 percent between 2012 and 2022, mostly by charging fewer teens with minor offenses, according to a Times/Bangor Daily News analysis of data from the state’s district attorneys. Long Creek, licensed for 168 beds, now has a daily average population of about 30 teenagers.
Other states have eliminated juvenile prisons. Decades ago, Missouri replaced its large facilities with smaller, more therapeutic secure settings. Maine’s New England neighbors have taken similar steps: Connecticut replaced its last youth prison in 2018 with smaller alternatives, though officials later found that one was using harsh isolation and restraint practices.
Vermont, which shuttered its juvenile detention center in 2020 and is planning a new building, has housed teens in adult correctional facilities or sent them to other states. And New Hampshire’s lawmakers and Republican governor agreed to replace its prison with a secure psychiatric facility.
Governor Mills, who declined an interview request, defended her record. The governor believes in diverting low-risk teenagers into rehabilitative services to make “youth incarceration as unnecessary as possible,” said a spokesman, Ben Goodman, in a statement. The administration has begun to “implement systemic reforms” by investing more in a range of youth programs, the statement said.
Still, it acknowledged, there remains work to be done to increase access and “meet the needs of Maine’s at-risk youth more effectively and protect public safety.”
That incremental approach, however, has kept Maine from fulfilling those ambitions with any urgency, said some youth advocates, lawyers and consultants to the state.
“The heartbreak of Maine,” said Lindsay Rosenthal, a criminal justice policy expert, “is that they have done so much on juvenile legal system reform to keep kids out of the system. Yet there just hasn’t been any action on building out the community-based continuum of care recently, or not enough action.”
“If these kids had a real champion among agency heads or elected leaders,” added Ms. Rosenthal, who advised Maine officials for several years through the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice, “real solutions could be implemented.”
Youth with troubled histories
Youth in Maine’s justice system come from all over the vast, rural state, with clusters from bigger cities like Portland and Lewiston. The state has struggled to curb forces that can imperil children. Its rates of child abuse and neglect have been worsening. The opioid epidemic hit hard. Intergenerational poverty runs deep.
Still, the state has had the lowest rate of violent crime in the country for most of the last 20 years, according to F.B.I. data. This pattern is generally mirrored in juvenile crime.
About 1,700 adolescents were under the justice system’s supervision in each of the last two years. In 2022, nearly half of juvenile crimes involved assault, theft or property destruction, according to the district attorney data, obtained through the state’s freedom of information law. Most of the roughly 1,800 referrals to prosecutors were misdemeanors.
Felonies accounted for under a quarter of referrals from 2018 to 2022. In 2022, sexual assault was the biggest category, followed by other assaults and robbery.
Homicides are even rarer. Since 2010, four teenagers have been tried for manslaughter, three prosecuted as adults. Eight youths were charged with murder; five were tried as adults.
Almost all the victims were relatives or romantic partners. In December, a 16-year-old pleaded guilty to stabbing his 14-year-old girlfriend 10 times during a dispute. Tried as a juvenile because he had no record of violence, he was sentenced to five years at Long Creek.
The teens sent there, mostly boys, vary in the risk they pose to the public, and to themselves, a 2020 assessment found. Most have histories of trauma, mental illness or interactions with the behavioral health and child welfare systems; many have abused drugs.
Confidentiality rules prevent the public from learning many details about adolescents’ cases. In recent months, for example, South Portland residents have been shaken by the limited information available on charges against a teenager alleged to have plotted an attack at his high school and held briefly at Long Creek.
In 2018, Maine’s highest court urged the state to create more alternatives to incarceration. Though shortages persist, judges and corrections officials have pared back on sending youth to Long Creek, where some are committed to serve sentences and more are detained awaiting resolution of their cases. In 2017, courts ordered 46 commitments to the prison; in 2022, they ordered not quite half as many.
Detentions in that period fell from 340 to 100. Many teens were held repeatedly: Forty percent of the 728 youth detained between 2017 and last June were there multiple times.
All the while, many community-based youth programs have eroded. The U.S. Department of Justice warned in 2022 that the state’s failure to provide adequate local behavioral health services — in violation of federal law — had forced hundreds of youth into Long Creek, hospitals and other institutions, and put many more at risk of ending up there.
‘We were nobodies’
Prison seemed like an empty threat to Harry and Timmy, the 17-year-olds from Rockland. They got into repeated trouble with the police starting two years ago. (At their families’ request, they are identified by first names only.)
Harry struggled in school, and by seventh grade, his mother said, he had given up. The next year, he began smoking marijuana daily. After failing every class as a high school freshman, she recalled, he was evaluated and diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression, anxiety and a cannabis use disorder. His troubles with the police started after he and Timmy were suspended from school for fighting.
Timmy was diagnosed with A.D.H.D. in kindergarten and began using marijuana at age 9. He had attended alternative classes for students with learning difficulties and was having problems transitioning to high school.
“We were bored. We were nobodies, and that kind of made us feel like somebodies,” Harry said of getting high and breaking the law. “It made us feel cool so we kept doing it.”
He added, “You just get used to being stuck in a cycle and it’s hard to get out of it.”
Officers issued summons after summons to Harry and Timmy, but little happened. By the summer of 2022, Harry’s charges progressed from trespassing and riding in a stolen car to destroying a vehicle, a felony. Timmy was charged in the same incident. He said he had also stolen multiple cars, chasing money and an adrenaline rush as he got deeper into hard drugs.
As a single parent, Harry’s mother, Susan, said she felt at a loss trying to stop his misbehavior. The juvenile corrections officer for both boys seemed overloaded, she recalled.
Eventually, he got the boys into a “restorative justice” program, intended to make them understand the harm their crimes had caused, but not until the next year.
Maine has a range of services for troubled teens, including mentorship programs, help for behavioral disorders and family problems, temporary housing, substance use treatment and therapeutic residential options.
But there is not nearly enough capacity to meet the need everywhere in the state.
At one point, Timmy’s mother was so worried during one of her son’s outbursts that she talked to the police about taking him to the emergency room. But she backed off, worried he would jump out of the car and injure himself.
Nearby Pen Bay Medical Center, after seeing a rise in the volume of adolescents coming through the E.R. and the severity of their behavior, created a locked three-room unit in October, a hospital spokeswoman said. The largely unfurnished rooms are designed to keep people safe for a few hours, though some stay for days or weeks waiting for a residential facility or other care.
“We feel like the new Long Creeks,” said Dr. Nir Harish, an emergency physician at Pen Bay. “I just can’t imagine something more harmful to a teenager.”
In August 2022, Harry’s mother sent him to live with his father in Minneapolis for a while. That month, Timmy nearly died from a suspected fentanyl overdose. He saw a therapist a few times after that.
Since then, Harry has stayed out of trouble and works at a restaurant. Timmy is doing well — making the honor roll and hauling lobster traps on weekends. His turnaround was bumpier: While trying to quit hard drugs, he said, he twice relapsed and had run-ins with the police — stealing a car, and kicking and biting officers during a drunken meltdown.
The judge reviewing his case noted that his name had come across her desk too many times, Timmy’s mother recalled, so he spent more than two weeks at Long Creek. There, Timmy said, he met teens accused of crimes like drug trafficking, shootings and robberies.
Avante Valentine, 19, who was committed to the prison in 2021 for shooting someone, said, “You are putting kids who are otherwise innocent or have done one bad thing with people like me.”
At Long Creek, he instigated riots, started fights and bullied other teens, he said in an interview last fall, nearly a year after his release. He described the prison as an extension of the streets. “It’s not something I created, it’s there,” he said. “I thrived in it.”
In December, he was charged with attempted robbery.
‘We are failing kids’
After vetoing the plan to close Long Creek, citing public safety concerns, Governor Mills directed the Corrections Department to identify sites for small, secure facilities around the state to confine teens who committed serious crimes. More than two years later, none are open.
Last March, corrections officials told lawmakers they had found two. One halted after just a few months, and the other had staffing problems and closed. (The department says it intends to reopen both.)
And plans for a six- to eight-bed secure facility at a specialized school fell apart: The school was wary of having a quasi-correctional facility on campus, Randall Liberty, the corrections commissioner, said in a recent interview.
Officials are considering building a residential-style unit adjacent to Long Creek to transition some youth out, he said, though it would not replace the prison. He complained that critics were too “hung up” on closing Long Creek, which he said “has all it needs to be successful” and ensure public safety.
State Representative Michael Brennan, a Democrat from Portland, is working to reduce Maine’s reliance on incarceration, ideally to a point that Long Creek is phased out when the state has other secure facilities and more community-based programs. But, he said, “I don’t talk about closing Long Creek, because it’s become very politically charged language.”
The state’s oversight of young offenders is fractured. Maine is one of fewer than 10 states where the Corrections Department is responsible for juveniles.
It helps fund more than two dozen intervention and support programs aimed at addressing the root causes of delinquency. But the Health Department has a much broader mandate, including behavioral health services, substance use treatment and foster care.
Juvenile officers responsible for creating treatment plans routinely encounter long wait-lists and few options for Health Department services, according to law enforcement and former corrections officials.
“Frankly, that’s the dirty secret of juvenile justice,” Tanya Pierson, a prosecutor in York County, told lawmakers in January. “We are failing kids because we are not providing them services they need.”
As a result, she said in an interview, some teens are unnecessarily detained at Long Creek. She offered two recent examples: one adolescent with no family who was not provided foster care, and another who needed more supervision but was not put into a residential treatment facility.
Time after time, Ms. Pierson said, the Health Department’s response to requests for help is: “We don’t have anything for this youth.”
Asked about such complaints, a Health Department spokeswoman, Lindsay Hammes, said in a statement that the agency is committed to expanding access to community-based and residential programs for children and youth. “We must and will do more,” the statement said.
The agency has also identified priorities for enhanced services and put more money into behavioral health programs. Last year, it significantly increased payment rates for some service providers, which has helped improve access. The department has already made other changes in response to intensifying scrutiny over its handling of abuse and neglect cases involving young children.
Mr. Liberty, the corrections commissioner, said he was aware of concerns about the lack of community services, especially from frustrated police chiefs and sheriffs who wish the department would lock up more youth offenders.
“I have a budget and squeeze every penny I can out for community-based programming, for community-based transitional housing,” he said. “That’s the best I can do.”
Maine’s relatively small number of juvenile offenders could make it more feasible than in many other states to build up a more robust approach to combating youth crime.
That likely would require more initial spending than current levels, some criminal justice experts say, but should save money eventually by preventing more teens from entering the juvenile system and having fewer needing the highest-cost services, including secure facilities.
The governor and other officials have not offered any estimate of what all that might cost. The juvenile justice budget is $30 million this year, with $14 million devoted to Long Creek; the Health Department budget for children’s and youth services is much larger, but also covers far more than programs for those in the juvenile system or at risk of entering it.
The two departments recently began meeting with other state agencies on how to better collaborate on juvenile issues. The work group, required by a law passed last spring, will spend several months coming up with a plan, said Ana Hicks, a policy adviser coordinating the Children’s Cabinet, which is overseeing this effort.
For this work to be successful, the state needs real leadership in creating a more holistic approach to helping children in jeopardy, including those who have broken the law, said Moira O’Neill, who helped initiate juvenile justice reforms as New Hampshire’s first child advocate and recently appeared before Maine lawmakers.
“I really admire and support Janet Mills,” she said in an interview. But, she added, “she’s held on to this primitive prosecutor’s view of children that when they do bad things they have to be punished to learn their lesson.”
Ms. O’Neill cited research into adolescent brain development, which shows that teenagers are more impulsive than adults and less able to grasp the consequences of their actions — but also more readily rehabilitated.
She lamented that Maine’s system did not better reflect this. “Part of not having a vision,” she said, “is not recognizing that what they are doing is not working.”
All but a few of the Democratic lawmakers who control the Legislature have largely backed off from the issue. Two vocal supporters of reform have since left the statehouse and those who remain are reluctant to propose initiatives without the governor’s support.
Last spring, members of the Legislature’s criminal justice committee debated whether to backpedal diversion efforts after reports of out-of-control teens in Rockland and Fairfield. The politicians sparred over whether the crime sprees were the fault of the juvenile system for not taking enough action, or the child welfare system for not addressing the underlying causes.
“Shame on us if Maine can’t create better alternatives than incarceration,” Representative Grayson Lookner, a Democrat from Portland who sponsored the vetoed 2021 bill, said in an interview. “It’s infuriating to me that we can’t look at the data, can’t trust the experts and create a better way of doing things.”
‘Living locked down’
In recent months, conditions at Long Creek have been volatile. At least three major incidents occurred, injuring one staff member. One involved a group of teenagers wielding broomsticks who got into an unauthorized part of the facility after stealing an employee’s key, said Mark Brunton, president of a union representing prison workers.
“I can’t say with specificity that staffing shortages led to these incidents,” he said, “but these conditions are what lead to staffing shortages.”
Understaffing has contributed to problems at Long Creek for years, including eruptions of violence. Since the pandemic, teens there have at times been restricted to their living units or cells because of a lack of employees to supervise them, limiting their access to programs and school.
Owen, a 19-year-old who spoke only on the condition that his last name be withheld, was committed to Long Creek for most of 2022 for gun and drug offenses.
Staffing-related restrictions made him feel punished, he said, when he ought to have earned privileges for completing Long Creek’s programs. “That’s why riots happen. If you’re living locked down,” he added, “people are going to act out.”
Frustrated, by the end of his stay he started fighting and became less compliant. He was arrested just months after his release, and now faces new drug and gun charges as an adult.
In January, lawmakers met to discuss two juvenile justice bills sponsored by Mr. Lookner: modest proposals focused on diverting teens from the system and into treatment. But any action was postponed after the politicians raised broader questions about oversight by the Corrections and Health Departments.
After years of discussions, consultant recommendations and state and federal reviews, many involved in the system are impatient.
“Frankly, we need to stop talking and we need to actually start doing some of the things that people have written in those reports,” said Sarah Branch, a former juvenile prosecutor who is now a defense lawyer and director of the Youth Justice Clinic at the University of Maine’s law school.
Supporting children is what makes the public safer, she added, “and we have the capacity and responsibility as a state to do that.”