The Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee hears online testimony this week about a proposal to create halfway houses for New Mainers leaving the juvenile justice system. Video screenshot

Lewiston officials are among those pushing a bill that would require the state Department of Corrections to work with immigrant communities to create culturally-sensitive halfway houses and services aimed at helping New Mainers transition out of the juvenile justice system.

“Such a setting would provide the support that these young people so desperately need to make a successful transition back into society and to reach their full potential as active members of our communities,” state Rep. Kristen Cloutier, a Lewiston Democrat, said.

Cloutier said Maine’s existing facilities “do not currently offer the cultural sensitivity necessary to provide immigrant families with the security they need to trust those houses as a safe and reliable place for their children to live and receive treatment on their path to recovery.”

The corrections department told the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee this week that the measure isn’t needed, pointing out there are two young people at the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland who were born outside the United States and two others whose parents were immigrants.

“This is not enough to justify setting up two community-based residences for this specific demographic,” Colin O’Neill, associate commissioner of juvenile services for the department, said.

Moreover, he said, most juveniles leaving Long Creek “do not require residential transitional level of care before returning to their families.”

A petition presented by Abdifatah Ahmed, a community organizer from Lewiston who is one of the directors of the New Mainers Alliance, said the proposed halfway houses would bring youngsters who have gotten in trouble “safely back to the community and help them contribute positively.”

The first person to sign the petition? District Attorney Andrew Robinson, the top prosecutor for Androscoggin, Oxford and Franklin counties.

State Sen. Nate Libby, a Lewiston Democrat, told the committee that one reason the new halfway houses are needed for New Mainers is that immigrant families, particularly Somalis, often shun children who get caught up in the criminal justice system.

When they get out, he said, it is “not uncommon for them to have no family support” at all to help them get back on their feet, a situation that makes it less likely young people from immigrant families who get into trouble will find their way out of it.

The bill directs the corrections commissioner to work with a “nonprofit organization formed for the purpose of involving immigrants in the civic work of their communities, local immigrant community members and associations, and local, state and federal agencies to provide halfway house services and other services in a culturally sensitive manner.”

It envisions at least two halfway houses, one for girls and one for boys.

It isn’t clear yet how much the proposal would cost. Advocates said they hope some of the funding could be raised from grants, donations and private sources.

Mutaz Abdelrahim, co-executive director of the New Mainers Alliance, told lawmakers about a young woman who loved dancing and always did well in school until she turned 15, fell in with the wrong crowd and started taking drugs.

Before long, Abdelrahim said, the girl was hooked – and to get drugs she soon started selling “her beautiful young body.” Peddling drugs to others followed and so did her arrest.

“She lived the withdrawal and shame alone inside the jail,” Abdelrahim said, and “when she came out her family disowned her.” With nobody take her in, no money, no job and no guidance, the girl ultimately moved to Minnesota through a criminal network and hasn’t been heard from.

If she’d had support from a program like the one the bill would establish, Abdelrahim said, “we would have saved her and told her everyone make mistakes, gave her a safe home, provide her with counseling and work to get her back to finish her high school, become a doctor or a scientist and help her family, community and country.”

“Passing this bill will ensure that you me and the rest of the community are doing the right thing to save those bright, smart, wonderful young kids when they need help the most,” Abdelrahim told legislators.

Alice Cornwell of North Haven told the committee that “small, culturally-sensitive halfway houses for immigrant kids transitioning out of the juvenile system is a common-sense step that focuses on rehabilitation and reintegration into society.”

“These halfway houses would allow kids to begin the road to recovery near their homes and families and communities and work to remove the stigma attached to kids in their local communities,” she said.

O’Neill said the corrections department is already “committed to developing community residences for youth” in its custody who require transitional care. It plans, he said, to operate two community residences, one for girls and one for boys, in South Portland and in Auburn.

“We don’t exclude based on other demographics, as this bill would require, so as not to be in violation of the equal protection clause” in the Constitution, he said.

In the two locations, young people will live “in a staff-supervised community residence, receive education, job training and job placement, and treatment services, all of which the bill seeks, while finishing their supervision” by the corrections department, O’Neill said.

But state Rep. Heidi Brooks, a Lewiston Democrat, said the immigrant community has unique needs.

“Language barriers and cultural differences put them in difficult positions, where they are unfamiliar with how medical treatment can transform the lives of their children in a positive direction,” she said. “Incarceration, without appropriate treatment and reintegration services, often leave children, relatives and their support systems devastated.”

“We all need to feel like we belong. Being connected to family and our community is essential,” Brooks said.

The committee plans to discuss the measure on Wednesday, April 14.

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