Earlier this week, I got too wrapped up with something I was doing in the yard, lost track of time, and missed a Zoom call I requested with some of the staff at the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland. My goof exposed me as embarrassingly disorganized.

Then I switched on the radio and heard a story on the news about how the state Senate just voted, as the House had last week, to close the juvenile detention facility, which left me wondering why.

When I was growing up, I remember dark references to the “youth center” as a place a kid could be sent for committing a crime – a junior prison, as it were. More recently, a single mother told me about how her son was caught in a hair-brained, attempted shop-lifting and how grateful she was he wasn’t sent to Long Creek, which could have been the outcome. Because young people do break the law, there needs to be a consequence.

So why close it?

A number of people I respect voted in favor of closure, both in the House and Senate. Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition Director Joe Jackson told me he “celebrated passage” of the bills. “The original plan was to put 200 kids together and paint them as bad,” he explained. With a 44% recidivism rate, Jackson pointed out, it’s time to ask whether that approach is working.

“The basic question we have to ask ourselves is this,” Jackson stressed, “are kids redeemable?”

State Rep. Bill Pluecker, who represents Warren and sits on the criminal justice committee, told me “the time has passed that we spend $18 million dollars annually to incarcerate kids in a way that just feeds them into a life of recidivism and increased cost to the taxpayers of Maine.”

The Maine State Prison, which is in Pluecker’s district, is understaffed, he said, adding that the 175 positions at Long Creek could help ease that.

Friendship Rep. Jeff Evangelos echoed this thinking. “We’re paying $660,000 per year per kid,” he said when asked why he’d supported closure.

Not everyone agrees.

“The argument about costs made by some proponents is not accurate,” Anna Black, a spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Corrections told me, “The MDOC has a number of unfilled positions that have remain unfilled for years because the number of youth has reduced. The argument about cost also neglects to note the amount of money MDOC’s Division of Juvenile Services puts into community programming and services.”

She also shared the MDOC’s 2021-2022 action plan that takes into account changing realities and a shift away from detention towards community based programs.

For non-violent offenders, there is much wisdom to what Jackson suggested about moving away from the stigmatization that comes from confinement. But what do you do about the violent ones?

When I suggested perhaps they could be housed in a dedicated wing at Warren, a friend who served time while young looked at me with huge, incredulous eyes that begged the question “how do you think that’s going to work out?”

These are very real questions that demand concrete answers.

“It’s a little bit like tearing down the Saddam Hussein statue,” one Augusta insider told me about the closure campaign, “it feels good, but then what?”

The land where Long Creek stands has been specifically deeded for the purpose of rehabilitating youth, so closing the facility would leave it vacant and unusable for other purposes. Today’s cost-ratio of spending per incarcerated youth, while seemingly extravagant, needs to be balanced against that reality as well.

Gov. Mills is likely to veto the closure bills, so much of this appears academic. But if she does, in the legislature’s next session similar efforts are also likely to re-appear. All of which leads to a useful discussion.

Are kids redeemable, and if so, how can we best foster that redemption?