FILE - ME Leigh Saufley 2-26-2019

Maine Supreme Court Chief Justice Leigh Saufley is greeted by lawmakers Feb. 26, 2019, as she arrives to deliver her annual state of the judiciary address to a joint convention of the Legislature.

In 2016, a transgender youth committed suicide at the Long Creek Youth Development Center, where Maine houses male and female offenders.

In 2017, a former inmate sued for what he said was inhumane treatment there during the 1990s; he was recently awarded half a million dollars.

And in June, Chief Justice Leigh Saufley cited lack of facilities and treatment for juveniles as a major problem facing the state.

Even though Maine is incarcerating fewer children than ever – around 50, half of whom have long-term sentences and half of whom are awaiting trial – critics charge the state’s juvenile justice system is broken.

Male and female children, who can be as young as 11, are housed at Long Creek, the state’s only exclusively juvenile prison, but there are also beds for boys and girls at Mountain View Correctional Facility, where adult male prisoners live. Treatment is inadequate and many of the inmates are mentally ill, critics charge. Some also point to the glaring inefficiency of spending $16.2 million per year to keep open Long Creek for so few children receiving so few services.

Overhauling the system is a goal shared by the Legislature, the governor and child advocates, who have banded together to decide the best direction to take next. With that in mind, the state recently contracted for $227,000 with the Center for Children’s Law and Policy (CCLP) to study the current system, the state’s needs and the children’s needs, and recommend changes. The study is being federally funded.

The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit will spend about seven months researching Maine’s juvenile justice system. Experts in juvenile justice policy, psychology and mental health, along with experts who can interpret data and statistics, will perform their research in Maine in conjunction with a juvenile task force assembled by Gov. Janet Hall, and the target for their report is February.

CCLP defines itself on its website as “a public interest law and policy organization focused on reform of juvenile justice and other systems that affect troubled and at-risk children, and protection of the rights of children in those systems.” It is staffed, it says, by “lawyers and former juvenile justice professionals with extensive expertise in creating a more equitable and effective juvenile justice system.”

Nationally, the trend in juvenile justice is to provide the least restrictive environment as close to a child’s home as possible. But with a lack of options and community care, children wind up behind bars, and behind barbed wire, in South Portland, mostly isolated from their families.

“We all understand that if the only option for placement in Maine is Long Creek, which is designed for very specific circumstances, we are not doing justice for our children,” Staufley said in her State of the Judiciary Address in February.

“The need for a continuum of caring and effective placement options for these youth has never been greater.”