A Skowhegan teen is asking the state’s top court to overturn his commitment to Maine’s youth prison in a case that claims the state corrections system is incapable of rehabilitating young people.
Last October, the 16-year-old, who is called J.R. in court documents, was sentenced to incarceration at the Long Creek Youth Development Center up to the age of 18 for a series of non-violent crimes, including two charges that were dropped from felonies to misdemeanors.
In a February appeal, the teen’s lawyer, Tina Heather Nadeau of Portland, asked the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to release J.R. and declare incarceration of young people for such minor crimes “cruel and unusual punishment” in violation of the Maine and U.S. constitutions.
The lawyer argued in a Friday court brief that her client was sent to Long Creek because the state lacks alternatives to the prison and that the juvenile court “abused” its discretion in locking up someone who was not a threat to the public.
The case is the second prominent legal challenge to the South Portland prison in recent weeks. It lands amid debate over how to improve conditions at the facility and calls for its closure, spurred by an inmate’s 2016 suicide, the revelation of Long Creek’s struggles to care for young inmates with deep mental illness and a staffing crisis there last summer.
Nadeau contends that the well-publicized troubles at the prison and detention center have rendered it largely unable to help troubled young people, leaving its role as punishment.
“It represents an outdated model of corrections, one that does not and cannot meet the needs of the children committed there,” she wrote, adding that in her client’s case it is “disproportionate and unusual punishment.”
A 2015 state law enables defendants in juvenile cases to appeal directly to the Supreme Judicial Court.
In a brief to the high court, prosecutors contest the claim that J.R.’s sentence to Long Creek shows a lack of discretion and more broadly object to the arguments that the prison’s role is punitive or unconstitutional.
Discretion was shown, in the court and prosecution’s willingness to drop the felony-level aggravated criminal mischief and burglary charges against the teen down to misdemeanors, Somerset County Assistant District Attorney Carie James wrote.
James said the teen was incarcerated only after months of counseling and other rehabilitative services failed. J.R. refused to meet with a social worker who came to his home and was rejected by Day One, which runs residential treatment programs, because they deemed him a flight risk, according to the prosecutor.
James contends that J.R. was a threat to the public, despite lacking a previous criminal record, and the only alternative his lawyer provided was probation. A juvenile corrections officer was worried about the teen’s “substance abuse,” the court brief states.
“Unfortunately, after having exhausted all available options in the community the only option remaining was commitment to” Long Creek, James wrote.
Nadeau said she expects to argue the case in Bangor this June.
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