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Bill Aims to Allow Some Adult Offenders in Juvenile Detention Centers
02/28/2013  

A Maine juvenile detention center may soon also house adult offenders. A proposed bill would allow men aged 18 to 25 to be incarcerated at the Mountain View Youth Development Center in Charleston. Supporters of the bill say while 18 to 25 year olds may technically be adults, in reality they have more in common with juveniles.

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Larry Austin is Superintendent of the Mountain View Youth Development Center. He said over the past 15 to 20 years, science has revealed a much better understanding of how human brains develop. And one thing is increasingly clear, adolescence extends well beyond the age of 18 - often, it continues into the late 20s.

"This population is also known to researchers as emerging adults, or late stage adolescents," Austin said.

This age group, said Austin, does not fit in well with adult prison. They tend to be loud, obnoxious, and self-centered. While they disrupt older inmates, adult correctional facilities also subject them to a less than ideal environment.

"This exposes them to a higher degree of anti-social behaviors and violence," said Austin. "And forces them to adapt to this environment. The longer someone is exposed to prison, the more likely they are to adapt to prison life."

And repeat criminal behavior. Austin wants to intervene and break the cycle. If 18 to 25 year old criminals are incarcerated at his facility, he said, they can access the kind of rehabilitation programs juveniles receive. They'll spend their days earning GEDs, their evenings in treatment programs. And staff at Mountain View can help them transition back into community life by helping them secure housing and a job. Republican Senator Gary Plummer, the sponsor of the bill, said lawmakers should jump at the chance to take advantage of its reformed juvenile detention programs.

"Those of us who remember the old Maine Youth Center and the problems we had will remember how bad things really were," Plummer said. "The Department of Corrections invested money and time in the two facilities that we now have and run exemplary programs in both facilities."

While Maine's juvenile facilities now have a good reputation, Mountain View is underutilized, according to corrections department officials. So if this bill passed, the young adult program would likely start there instead of at Long Creek in South Portland. The prospect of mixing juveniles and young adults in one facility initially raised some hackles when word of the bill first came out in January. But Department of Corrections Commissioner Joe Ponte said there will be a sight and sound barrier.

"We can't mix juveniles and adults," Ponte said. "So At Mountain View, we're gonna run two separate programs, even though they're in the same building."

It's actually a federal law to separate the two, and Larry Austin from Mountain View said they'll accomplish that by erecting a wall within the building. The bill has support from the Maine Juvenile Justice Advisory Group as well as the Maine ACLU. Jill Barkley spoke for the ACLU.

"As everyone in this room well knows, almost every person who is now incarcerated will someday not be incarcerated." Barkley said. "Jail or prison is not the end of the road for most offenders. We support this legislation because we know there are things our correctional system in our state can do to help people live better lives with more personal responsibility once released."

No one appeared at the hearing to oppose the bill. If it passes, not every 18 to 25 year old offender would go to a Juvenile Center. The department would first select those most likely to succeed in the program, based on things like personal motivation.

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