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Lack of Intervention for Teens Behind Maine Juvenile Justice Crisis

Nearly three years ago, Maine lawmakers hoped to transform how governments deal with teenagers who break the law by passing a bill aimed at closing the state’s only youth prison and expanding rehabilitation programs for adolescents. Now, Maine has become a cautionary tale about the path to reform. Although it sends far fewer adolescents to youth prison than it did a decade ago, the state 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, a report by The New York Times and The Bangor Daily News found.

No alternatives to the juvenile facility are operating. Officials have not fixed the severe shortage of community-based intervention programs intended to catch delinquency early. 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 a plan to address it.

Meanwhile, dire consequences are playing out in communities across Maine. Intensive services that help steer adolescents from entering the justice system are not offered in its rural northern county. 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. Across the U.S., the number of juveniles charged with crimes has plummeted as states arrest fewer adolescents, embracing 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.


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