Cumberland DA won't charge officers in Long Creek use-of-force cases

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Aug. 12—Prosecutors in Cumberland County will not be pressing charges against corrections officers for their use of force at Long Creek in a series of incidents at the state's only youth prison last summer.

Cumberland County District Attorney Jonathan Sahrbeck said his office reached its decision after reviewing an independent investigative report on use of force report against youth involved in the incidents.

When asked about the decision, first reported in the Bangor Daily News, Sahrbeck declined to elaborate or release a copy of the investigation to the Portland Press Herald, citing state law regarding the handling of court-related evidence and saying that he was on vacation.

"I can add that the analysis in reviewing the incidents included examining whether the use of force was reasonable based upon the circumstances at that time and the role of the individuals involved, as well as if we believed that we would be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a criminal act was committed," Sahrbeck wrote in a text.

Last September, prosecutors were considering criminal charges against the corrections officers, according to state lawmakers who were briefed at the time.

Incidents at Long Creek over a two-month period that began last summer caused $160,000 in damage. Three high-ranking officials at the youth prison left in the aftermath.

"It's infuriating," said Al Cleveland, campaign manager with Maine Youth Justice, an advocacy organization pushing for the closure of Long Creek. "There's no oversight of what is happening to young people in that facility. That needs to be condemned by the DA's office."

Before the lawmakers were briefed last fall, Disability Rights Maine, the state's designated advocacy and protection agency for people with disabilities, wrote the Maine Department of Corrections a letter expressing concern about Long Creek corrections officers' use of prone restraints, in which they held minors face down to the ground. Disability Rights Maine pointed out that national policy experts had been advising Long Creek against the use of prone restraints since 2017, but said they were still a "go-to option" for officers, despite being "inherently dangerous and potentially deadly."

At the time of last summer's incidents, the prison already was under scrutiny for the 2016 suicide of a transgender teen and an outside review of the prison in 2017 that found it was severely under-equipped to handle the mental health needs of the young people it was holding.

Several recommendations from that initial report by the nonprofit Center for Children's Law and Policy focused on officers' use of force. The center advised administrators to explicitly prohibit prone restraints and to monitor videos of incidents to make sure that restraint wasn't being used. The report also recommended that officers get more training on de-escalation, with a focus on non-physical strategies.

Maine created a task force and hired the Center for Children to conduct another assessment of Maine's juvenile justice system in 2020. Their work included a data analysis on youth in custody between June 2018 and May 2019. Among the key takeaways was that 53 percent of the young people detained at Long Creek that year did not pose any public safety risk. Instead, they could not go home for any number of reasons, like absent parents or their mental health needs, and alternative placements did not have room for them.

The report included a host of recommendations to reduce incarceration, like expanding restorative justice programs and crisis-bed capacity. The center also said Maine should move responsibility for juvenile justice from the state's Department of Corrections to another agency.

In 2020, the Department of Corrections created an action plan to reduce secure confinement for youth, which included moving $6 million from the $18 million budget for Long Creek to open two transitional homes for youths leaving lockup. The department even called the Center for Children's Law and Policy back to Maine in December to review last summer's reports of violence. That new independent review last December found similar problems and made similar recommendations on use of force and mental health resources.

In recent years, Maine lawmakers have inched closer toward closing the prison. Both the Maine House and Senate passed a bill in 2021 to close the facility, but they didn't have enough votes to override a veto from Gov. Janet Mills, who said at the time she was rejecting the proposal because it wasn't a bill that "takes into account the needs of public safety."

Sahrbeck, however, has expressed support for closing the facility. While running for the Democratic nomination for Cumberland County District attorney, which he lost to Augusta prosecutor Jacqueline Sartoris, Sahrbeck said in a debate hosted by Maine Youth Justice that he acknowledged the facility's problems and supported ending his office's commitments to Long Creek, saying the closure was "overdue."

"We cannot put youth into incarceration as much as we do," Sahrbeck said during the June 6 debate. "We really need to take that step to understand the trauma that is caused by youth incarceration."

In June, the U.S. Department of Justice was the latest organization to weigh in on affairs at Long Creek, writing the governor and Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey to say that Maine "unnecessarily segregates children with mental health and/or developmental disabilities, in psychiatric hospitals, residential treatment facilities, and a state-operated juvenile detention facility." The federal department's announcement was in response to a request for an investigation by Disability Rights Maine.

"Maine has not invested enough in mental health resources and psychiatric care for young people," said Cleveland with Maine Youth Justice, referring to Long Creek as an ill-equipped "de facto psych ward." "So, we're continuing to advocate that the state and the DOC release all young people from the facility because the conditions are not supportive to their wellbeing. ... Every single young person in that building is under risk."