October 01, 2022

Truth about Maine juvenile justice

Recently there has been a series of news articles and editorials regarding the proposed legislative changes to Maine’s juvenile codes and the desire to balance out public safety, the need for retribution and rehabilitation. It is important to recognize that there are two aspects to this dialogue: 1) the need for balance between public safety and rehabilitatin, and 2) the necessary funding to accomplish this.

The Maine Juvenile Justice Advisory Group (JJAG) is a group of individuals appointed by Maine’s governor and representing a broad cross-section of criminal justice personnel, representatives of both the private and public sector, state officials, citizens, parents and consumers. The JJAG has served a number of governors since its inception in the 1970s. One of the major responsibilities of this group is to advise the governor and Legislature concerning issues dealing with juveniles and the criminal justice community in Maine.

Over the last several years, we have developed a considerable amount of time studying the issues concerning juvenile bindovers and the reduction in age to be considered an adult at 17 rather than 18. These are very complex issues and easily lend themselves to sensationalism. On three different occasions the JJAG has voted on these issues and overwhelmingly opposed any changes. The reason for this is very simple. When you look at the numbers that would be impacted in the bindover process, it would average out to approximately 10 juveniles per year statewide. When a bindover is requested by the prosector, more than half of the bindovers are granted by the judged based on the legislastive criteria; another 25 percent are requested by the defendant, who want to be tried as adults and work out a plea.

Much against the populuar notion except in the msot extreme crimes, juveniles can wind up serving more time in the youth center if they’re tried as juveniles as opposed to taking a plea in the adult worl. How many burglars do you know who may do four years before being released (the span of 17 to 21)? Prosecutors say they don’t ask for a bindover on many cases since they don’t feel they would get it. Exactly! That is why the law is written as it is. Do you really want an elected official such as a prosecutor making the decision that is currently held by a judge? It is also interesting to note that is it he prosecutors who actually deal with the juveniles and this system for the shortest period of time out of all the criminal justice professionals that the adolescent comes in contact with. There is an old saying concerning suicide, that it is a short-term solution for long-term problems. The proposed changes in the juvenile codes amount to signing off on our kids and committing “juvenile suicide.”

Maine is a unique place. Just a few major juvenile crimes not only make all the media, but can vastly change our statistical numbers. But we can’t base this on numbers. These kids are individuals. You would have to have had your head under a rock not to realize that Maine’s corrections system has for years been give many mandates but no money to carry them out. Just recently, the populous has reacted very negatively to federal mandates being imposed and no money to carry them out on the local level. If corrections officials are to carry out their challenging mission, they must be given the tools and not just a pat on the back and a few scraps from the legislative appropriations table.

Also, it is not an argument that makes any sense that by taking the 17-year-olds out of the juvenile mix that they will be better served. These kids aren’t stupid, and know the difference between the juvenile and adult systems. Just by sheer numbers the juveniles get more attention. Juvenile caseworkers’ caseloads are 65 to 75, adult probation officials’ caseloads are 150 to 200-plus, and the examples can on and on.

It is amazing that we hold juveniles accountable to much more stringent laws than adults such as OUI, moral health issues and even driving the car. The reasons behind these restrictive laws have always been sound. These are kids. They need guidance and direction. Now how does it makeany sense to reverse that thought-legislative process when it comes to juvenile crime? Our system is not broke. In actuality, it could be a high-performance machine. If all the cylinders were funded properly, we’d be much more successful and be traveling through much safer communities.

Paul K. Vestal Jr. is chairman of the Legislative Committee of the Maine Juvenile Justice Advisory Group.

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