AUGUSTA — The House of Representatives voted narrowly on Thursday in support of a proposal to reduce the number of young people who are sent to the state’s youth prison in South Portland.

The bill would allow law enforcement to work with the Department of Health and Human Services to determine whether a young person accused of a crime could remain safely in the community with the help of support services such as housing, substance use treatment or mental health support.

The bill, L.D. 1779, came out of committee with a bipartisan recommendation against passage, but an effort to kill the bill on the House floor Thursday fell one vote short. A second vote to pass the proposal was approved 75-70, with Reps. Jessica Fay, D-Raymond, and Michele Meyer, D-Eliot, changing their minds and voting in support. 

The votes came after several Democrats, including the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Grayson Lookner, D-Portland, urged members to reject the committee recommendation to kill the bill.

“Today I rise with a sense of conviction and urgency,” Lookner said. “To the maximum extent possible, we need to keep youth out of harmful punitive systems, and incarceration should be one of the last resorts, not one of the first, when it comes to addressing youth who are in crisis.”

The bill would establish a process for the Department of Corrections to work with DHHS to conduct a comprehensive needs assessment for youths who are accused of low-level crimes. The assessments would seek to identify services that could help the youth, including medical, educational, social therapeutic and other services, and avoid the need for incarceration at Long Creek Youth Development Center. That assessment would need to be conducted within 60 days.


The bill calls for an investment of nearly $1.5 million for the assessments, funding that lawmakers would need to free up if both chambers vote in support of the bill.

Supporters said the diversion program would only be available to youths who don’t pose a threat to the public. Long Creek would remain an option for people who pose a public safety threat.

During the floor debate, Lookner cited a list of long-standing problems at Long Creek, including prolonged lockdowns that prohibit young people from meeting their attorneys, staffing shortages and violence within the center. He also pointed to a 2022 letter from the U.S. Department of Justice, which said Maine is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by not providing needed services for institutionalized children.


Staff at Long Creek sounded the alarm this week over working conditions and staffing shortages, saying the facility is “in crisis.” And the superintendent, Lynne Allen, announced last Friday that she was resigning for undisclosed personal reasons.

In the latter half of 2023, there were 156 instances of violence – 27 fights, 37 assaults on residents, 23 resident assaults on staff and 58 uses of force on residents, staff said in a letter to the DOC. There also have been 11 incidents involving three or more residents, which Local 1989 Legislative Coordinator Jonathan Brown said staff consider riots, some of which have caused up to $500,000 in damage to the facility.


Advocates for criminal justice reform have been calling on the state to close Long Creek for years. The center houses people under the age of 21 who are charged with or convicted of felonies. Previous efforts to divert youth from Long Creek have helped reduce the population in recent years, but advocates hope the new legislation could keep more young people avoid the lockup. The prison housed anywhere from 16 to 39 residents on a daily basis in 2023.

Republicans, with the exception of Rep. David Boyer, R-Poland, and Rep. Laurel Libby, R-Auburn, opposed the bill, along with six Democrats: Reps. Michel Lajoie, Lewiston; Anne-Marie Mastraccio, Sanford; Stephen Moriarty, Cumberland; Tiffany Roberts, South Berwick; Bruce White, Waterville; and Rep. Suzanne Salisbury, Westbrook.

Meyer dismissed questions and walked away from a reporter when asked why she voted both against and for the bill.

Fay, who also switched her vote, said in a text message that the bill “has some merit (but) I would have preferred a different approach.” She did not elaborate on what that approach should be.

The original version of the bill, which would have diverted youth incarceration funding to community service providers and directed the state to draft a plan to repurpose the facility, was opposed by the department of corrections.

Gov. Janet Mills, a former state prosecutor, has yet to weigh in on the proposal.



Department of Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty told the committee during a public hearing in May 2023 that the department already conducts assessments and that a lot has changed at Long Creek in recent years.

“The range of services (available) to youth, following a needs and risk assessment, are bountiful, and have only become more so as the number of youth remain low,” Liberty said. “Long Creek today is not what it was three years ago, five years, 10 years ago. Today there is healing, there is education, there is behavioral health treatment, there is laughter and camaraderie.”

Nobody spoke against the bill during the floor debate, which was dominated by Democrats, who argued that incarceration can change the trajectory of a young person’s life and only further harm young people who already have struggled with traumatic events early in their lives.

Rep. Nina Milliken, D-Blue Hill, said she was lucky that she never wound up in jail when she assaulted someone as a teenager or during her struggle with drug and alcohol use.

“I am forever grateful that I didn’t end up incarcerated, because I am confident my life would look very different now,” Milliken said. “I don’t know that I would be standing here where I am today.”


Milliken said the state should first seek to address the underlying causes that land people in the corrections system, whether it’s providing food, shelter or basic parenting.

“I acknowledge the offenses committed by these young people are criminal, but these children are industrious, smart, creative and kind people who have been failed at every step along the way,” she said. “The offenses they were charged with were born of necessity or born of a life of struggle. Their offenses arose from unmet needs.”

Rep. Valli Geiger, D-Rockland, said her city has struggled with an increase in juvenile crime and that her police chief supports the approach outlined in the bill.

“He wants to see a comprehensive assessment of each of these children and he wants the services put in place instead of a revolving door of going up to Long Creek where they spend the weekend and are released by a judge,” Geiger said. “We must fund this or it is just words on a page.”

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