ROCKLAND — Rockland’s police chief said the city is facing a sharp increase in the number of crimes being committed by juveniles.

But, Chief Tim Carroll said, the criminal justice system is failing by not giving law enforcement an option for handling these repeat offenders who pose a risk to the community.

The assistant district attorney who handles juvenile cases acknowledged that the system is the worst she has seen, by far, in her more than 11 years on the job.

“It’s a perfect storm,” Assistant District Attorney Lindsay Dean said.

There was a lack of mental health services for young people before the pandemic, and now there are more youths with mental health problems and more with more serious mental health problems.

At the same time, the Maine Legislature has pushed to close Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland, the only state juvenile detention center. While the Center remains open, sending a juvenile to the Center is much more difficult and few youths are housed there.

“I feel like I’m driving blindfolded with my hands tied behind my back,” Dean said about trying to do her job to keep young people, communities and victims safe.

District Attorney Natasha Irving said children’s mental health services in Maine was at crisis levels before the pandemic, and now these conditions are indescribable.

The region’s chief prosecutor said the increase in juvenile crime is not a phenomenon that is exclusive to Knox County or Maine.

“This is a nationwide, significant increase in youth involved violent offenses. My counterparts in other states are dealing with an enormous increase in gun violence, most of which are commissioned with a legally purchased firearm. I cannot emphasize how grave the need is for a significant, statewide investment in a public mental health system for children. It is, in my opinion, the most significant concern we have as a state presently,” Irving said.

“These young people will grow up, and we will deal with them as adults. Early intervention is key, youth who will commit these crimes are often easily identifiable in our school system and as victims in cases we are prosecuting, or as children whose parents are involved with the child protective department of DHHS. We can solve this problem if it is a priority in our state and federal budgets,” the district attorney said.

Chief Carroll said the crimes in Rockland are largely being committed by about a half dozen young people. These offenses include assaults, criminal threatening, disorderly conduct, criminal mischief, criminal trespass, thefts and refusing to submit to arrest.

There were 10 juvenile offenses in July alone, the chief noted. A recent case involved a teenager who called police to say he was armed and wanted them to get him. He then went to the police station with another youth and smashed bottles in the parking lot.

The chief said he supports diversion of young offenders but there are not the services available in the state to serve the young people who previously were sent to Long Creek.

“We have a group of kids who are released to their parents and they are back on the streets that same day or the next committing more crimes,” the chief said.

He said conditions placed on the young people released by the juvenile community corrections officers are ignored. Even when they are not ignored, the corrections officers will not order their detention.

The chief said he does not know for certain what is behind the sharp increase but speculated it was the pandemic and the associated shutdown of the schools which led many young people not to have structure in their days.

When there are mental health calls the police department is the default agency to call, he said. When a young person is in a mental health crisis, officers will take them to Pen Bay Medical Center in Rockport. But, he said, the response is often that the hospital does not have the room or does not have the staff.

“We are trained the best we can but we are not mental health professionals.”

When a call comes in, an officer often spends three hours on the call as they take someone to the hospital and wait until the person is evaluated, sometimes medicated, and then sent home.

Carroll said he will recommend to the City Council that a mental health professional be added to the department.

The chief said in one recent case when officers apprehended a youth for a repeat offense and the juvenile community corrections officer said to release the youth back to his parents, Carroll called the corrections officer’s supervisor to plead for the youth to be detained. The supervisor declined, he said.

Dean acknowledged that the juvenile community corrections officers are restricted in having youths detained because the criteria has changed.

Under the state’s juvenile code, the prosecutor can override a corrections officer’s decision on detention in certain cases.

“I use it sparingly in cases where I feel detention is needed,” she said. She has overridden an officer’s determination twice in recent times and ordered youths detained.

The Maine Department of Corrections said decisions about detaining a juvenile are made by the department’s Juvenile Correction Community Officers, working closely with law enforcement.

“Together they ensure that decisions adhere to requirements in law and balance public safety, including the interests of victims, as well as the interests of the youth and their family,” Anna Black, the director of government affairs and spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Corrections, said.

She said as part of this consideration, juvenile community corrections officers use a new juvenile detention risk assessment to “objectively measure factors associated with a juvenile’s risk of reoffending and their risk of not appearing for Court.” She said the assessment allows the officers to make a more objective determination regarding detention. The assessment was adopted in October 2021 and is being reviewed by the University of Southern Maine to determine its overall efficacy, and what, if any, changes can help strengthen the assessment.

“The Department will continue to work closely with law enforcement officials to make decisions that follow legal standards while balancing public safety and the interests of youth,” Black said.

Long Creek has a capacity to hold 168 people but its current population is 28.

The Portland Press Herald reported in a February article that advocates for youth have been calling for the closure of Long Creek for years. A transgender teenager killed himself at the facility in 2017, the first suicide in decades. Since then, the state has commissioned report after report examining youth justice statewide and Long Creek in particular.

Tension boiled over again last summer when the facility was rocked by seven incidents of unrest in two months, the Press Herald reported. Young people took over housing units, acted out and destroyed property, causing thousands of dollars in damage. The incidents led to the ouster of the superintendent and the reassignment of a high-level corrections official. Faced with chronic staffing and a lack of programming, young people faced crushing boredom and acted out to get their needs met, experts found, the Press Herald article reported.

According to the Maine Department of Corrections website, the Long Creek Youth Development Center, formerly the Maine Youth Center, and before that called the Boys’ Training Center, was established in 1853. Originally opened as a reform school with working farms, a chair caning shop, a kiln house, brickyard, tool house and wharf were located there at some time during the last one hundred and fifty years. In 1976, the juvenile female offenders housed at the Stevens School for Girls in Hallowell transferred to the Center and by an act of the Legislature, the boys training center was renamed to the Maine Youth Center. On August 6, 2002, the residents were moved to the new Long Creek Youth Development Center and the Maine Youth Center was relegated to the history books.

The Center provides a comprehensive multi-disciplinary risk reduction program, providing education, behavioral health, medical, religious services and recreational services in a secure environment for youths 12 to 20, according to the Corrections Department.

Local legislators and candidates for local Legislative seats were sent emails by the Courier-Gazette asking for their comments on the dilemma faced by law enforcement in dealing with youth crimes.

“There is no quick and simple answer to this issue,” said state Rep. Anne “Pinny” Beebe-Center, D-Rockland, who is running for the state Senate District 12 seat in November. “It is a very serious issue that is increasing in severity. Until communities understand what is causing and sustaining these behaviors, I don’t know that police, schools and communities will have the knowledge and the tools to be able to respond effectively. I see the role of the state/legislature supporting and strengthening what communities have learned is causing these issues and what needs to be done to change these behaviors.”

She said there are organizations that are trying to serve youth such as MRBN.

State Rep. William Pluecker, an independent from Warren, acknowledged police need the resources to make sure when juveniles break the law there are resources for the young peopled. But, he said, those resources are not available at the drop of a hat. He pointed out it oftentimes means substance use disorder treatment, of which there are no publicly-financed beds available in the state for juveniles.

“Sometimes, this means finding safe housing for the youth, which is in very high demand right now. Sometimes, the youth need work, food, health care (besides substance use disorder treatment), or transportation,” Pluecker said.

“The State needs to start creating programming that can supply these needs for our youth. If we do not do this work, the kids end up in Long Creek at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to the tax payer. Long Creek is a waste of resources when we compare how much we spend to lock the kids up just to commit crime again. We are throwing taxpayer dollars at the problem and not seeing the return. It is time we looked at the help these kids truly need and teach them the skills they need to earn it,” Pluecker said.

Heather Sprague of Cushing – the Republican candidate for the House District 43 seat which represents Cushing, Thomaston, South Thomaston, St George and part of Owls Head – said the state can start by “not closing places like Long Creek so hardened juvenile criminals have a place to go.”

“This is one reason why they are released back onto the streets. I believe a good, well-funded, well-staffed youth correctional facility like Long Creek and other closed down facilities if reopened could help them get their lives on track,” Sprague said.

Sprague also contended the public school system needs to stop “putting political issues in the classrooms and start teaching youths how to become productive members of society.”

She said the lockdowns, masking, mandates and the closing of our schools had a major impact on youths’ mental health and the state needs to implement programs to help youths heal from that traumatic experience so they can stay out of the court system.

Crystal Lynn Robinson – the candidate for House District 44 which includes Hope, Union and Warren – said juvenile crime and crime in general is a complex and multifaceted problem.

“We need to step back and look at the problem as a whole, forget about partisan politics, and focus on solutions. I have been told that one in four children in Maine are born addicted to drugs, including legal drugs such as antidepressants. Experts have told me that treating these children is very difficult because their brains have been chemically altered. Even nicotine can cause serious withdrawal symptoms and brain injury for some children. We have multiple generations of people having children who have no idea how to take care of themselves, let alone their child. We also have a housing crisis, especially since COVID.  It is difficult to help a transient population,” Robinson said.

She said the state cannot pass hit or miss laws that might help some but exacerbate the problem for others.

“I would like to see statewide community groups working under one umbrella to first identify the issues that affect our children and our families and then start working on a solution. Whatever we do, it has to come from the people.  There has to be common sense. It cannot be about increasing government control over our lives or supporting agendas. People are losing faith in our government, in our schools, in corrections, and in our healthcare systems,” Robinson said.