Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland. Credit: Susan Sharon | Maine Public

Judges on the state’s top court questioned whether the justice system is failing young Mainers Wednesday.

During a hearing in the case of a Skowhegan teen suing to overturn his commitment to Maine’s youth prison, justices on the Supreme Judicial Court appeared skeptical that the state offers troubled teens the full range of services that they need.

Although it is focused on one 16-year-old, called J.R. in court documents, the case represents the high court being asked to weigh in on the efficacy of Maine’s juvenile justice system. It’s a debate that has percolated through the public and Legislature in the wake of troubles at the Long Creek Youth Development Center over the last two years.

In court, Chief Justice Leigh Saufley said that the state appears to leap from home care to incarceration when there should be intermediary options available to young people.

“If the only thing we have available for a 16-year-old who is stealing cash is Long Creek, have we not failed our kids?” Saufley said. “Long Creek is not a treatment facility … these kids are in lock down. This follows them for the rest of their lives. It changes who they are.”

[Teen sues over detention at Long Creek, challenging Maine’s imprisonment of youths]

Last October, J.R. was sentenced to incarceration at Long Creek up to the age of 18 for a series of non-violent property crimes, including a burglary felony that was later dropped to a misdemeanor.

Although Maine’s youth justice system allows inmates to be released early, the nearly 18-month commitment was “galaxies away” from what an adult would have gotten for the same crimes, a judge said Wednesday.

Before he went to Long Creek, a juvenile corrections officer was worried about J.R.’s “substance abuse,” according to court documents. On Wednesday, the judges repeatedly questioned defense attorney Tina Heather Nadeau of Portland and Somerset County Assistant District Attorney Carie James about what options were available to the sentencing court short of prison.

James acknowledged a break in the “continuum of care” for Maine youth, an issue she said was primarily a problem of funding. But the prosecutor also said that the state tried and failed to place J.R. in a residential treatment program, which turned him down out of concern that he might run away.

Asked what the lower court should have done, Nadeau’s answer was: “better.”

Saufley also pointed out that courts in different parts of the state appear to have different approaches to young offenders. “We certainly see the disparate treatment in the way juvenile cases are handled in Portland and the way they are handled, say, north of Augusta,” she said.

Although the judges seemed concerned with systemic issues it raises, they pressed both lawyers with questions about J.R.’s case.

Nadeau argued that the teen should not have been incarcerated because he was not a threat to the public, whereas James contended that other available options had been exhausted.

The court did not seem to be clearly leaning one way or the other in the case and reserved its decision for a later date.

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