Maine’s 130th Legislature focuses on youth justice reform

By McKenzi Stevens ’23, Juvenile Justice Fellow at the Maine Center for Juvenile Policy and Law

Amid the pandemic, Maine’s 130th Legislature got to work. Through the Juvenile Justice Clinic and the Maine Center for Juvenile Policy and Law (MCJPAL) students had the opportunity to work with stakeholders to make important changes for young people involved in the justice system, including the passage of a bill developed by Maine Law’s own 2021 graduate Jon Ruterbories!  Prior to this legislative session, if the court decided a young person would be tried in adult court, they could not appeal that decision until the conclusion of their criminal case. The passage of the bill developed by Jon gives a young person the option to appeal that bind-over decision immediately. Read more about it here. 

One of the biggest changes to the Juvenile Code was approved through LD 1676, An Act To Limit Access to Juvenile Case Records and Protect the Confidentiality of Juvenile History Record Information. Spanning nearly 18 pages, the bill revises the law with respect to the handling of juvenile records, establishing a clear presumption of confidentiality, and prohibiting the on-line dissemination of all juvenile case records including those that are open to public inspection. It also makes juvenile case records and Juvenile Court proceedings confidential when competency of the young person is in question and allows for the automatic post-adjudication sealing of a juvenile record for low-level offenses. The practitioner work group at MCJPAL contributed to the development of the bill which enjoyed broad support across juvenile justice professionals and advocates. It is just the latest effort to improve understanding around the impact of a juvenile records and related policy and practice as captured in USM’s 2017 Unsealed Fate report, which also involved contributions from Clinic students.

Legislation spurred by the statewide Juvenile Justice Task Force and related system assessment was among proposals enacted as well. LD 546, An Act to Implement the Recommendations of the Maine Juvenile Justice System Assessment and Reinvestment Task Force, was ultimately incorporated in the supplement budget and prohibits children from being detained pre-adjudication simply because they have no other place to go.  It also reduces the number of staff at Long Creek Youth Development Center, increases investment in community-based alternatives to incarceration, and calls for a review to identify alternate, smaller, secure care options for youth. Also passed was LD 320, an act focused on improving access to counsel and judicial review for young people in the juvenile system and on establishing minimum ages at which children can be detained and incarcerated. All of this will go a long way to help reduce reliance on incarceration and to increase the state’s commitment to a continuum of care that achieves the final recommendation of the system assessment of removing all youth from Long Creek.

Other bills relating to juvenile justice reform were approved by the Legislature, but vetoed by Governor Mills. LD 847 proposed the creation of a Transition to Adulthood Diversion Program in hopes of diverting young people aged 18-25 from commitment and into programs based in restorative practices. Also vetoed this session was LD 1668, a resolve which called for the development of a plan to close the Long Creek Youth Development Center by 2023, and divert the funding for the facility into community-based programs for young people in the system.

As one of the juvenile justice fellows at MCJPAL this summer, I worked with my student colleagues on a summary of the major youth justice legislation approved during this past legislative session. What surprised me the most was the fact that Maine did not have a statutory minimum age for juvenile court jurisdiction or for youth to be committed or detained in a secure facility until now, and that age still seems quite young at the immature age of twelve. However, I was excited to learn about some of the community-based resources that were improved to help keep youth out of the justice system, such as the extension of time permitted for youth who need housing to remain in a shelter. You can check out the legislative summary here.

Although many important changes to the Juvenile Code and related law impacting youth were approved, there is more work to be done. The conversation about what to do with Long Creek, how to invest in alternatives to incarceration, and what an effective community-based continuum of care looks like did not end with this past legislative session. Bills were carried over to the next session of the 130th Legislature, and policy research continues in preparation for future proposals.