Should a Clinton teenager be incarcerated until his 21st birthday for manslaughter in the death of three friends in a car crash, or does Maine law require that Timothy Silva be on probation at home?

Maine’s highest court will answer that question after justices on Thursday heard oral arguments remotely in the juvenile’s appeal of his sentence.

Maine laws concerning juveniles who commit crimes emphasize rehabilitation over punishment and advise judges to impose the least restrictive sentences possible. But the Legislature also granted judges great latitude in making sentencing decisions about juveniles.

Over the past decade, fewer juveniles in Maine and the United States have been incarcerated. In part, that’s because they’ve committed fewer crimes. But studies have shown that most children who are convicted of crimes have better outcomes if they remain in their homes and receive services. Teens who are incarcerated have higher recidivism rates than those who aren’t, data show.

Silva, now 17, was sentenced in December to Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland until he turns 21. He admitted that in February 2020 when he was 16 and did not have a driver’s license, he took his mother’s 2007 Toyota Corolla without permission, picked up four friends, and drove around town.

Shortly before 7 a.m. on the morning of Feb. 9, he sped up so he could get one of the victims home before a parent discovered he was missing. He was driving at about 85 mph in a 40- to 45-mph section of Hinckley Road when he hit ice, lost control of the car, left the road and slammed into a tree.

Thomas “Tommy” Porfirio, 15, Emily Baker, 14, and her sister, 12-year-old Ashlin Baker, all of Clinton, were killed in the crash. First responders found them dead inside the car when they arrived at the crash site.

Nevaeh Wilson, 12, of Clinton, and Silva were injured but recovered.

District Court Judge Charles Dow said in his written sentencing decision that Silva’s incarceration was necessary “because a lesser sentence will depreciate the seriousness of the juvenile’s conduct.”

Silva’s attorneys, Walter McKee and Kurt Peterson of Augusta, argued in his appeal that Dow did not follow the law.

Dow did not consider whether the sentence was the least restrictive way to rehabilitate Silva, a violation of the law, they said.

“The Juvenile Court’s failure to acknowledge why permitting [Silva] to stay in his home would be contrary to [his] welfare is further indicative of the Juvenile Court’s abuse of discretion and the purposes of the Maine Juvenile Code not being realized,” their brief said.

Carie James, assistant district attorney for Kennebec County, argued in her brief that Dow considered all the evidence presented on Silva’s behalf “but was not convinced that remaining at home with his mother and continuing to participate in treatment would have effectively protected the public and provided a meaningful and effective rehabilitation resource for [him].”

The prosecutor also argued that Silva could be released before he turns 21 if he participates in the programming outlined for him by providers at Long Creek. The teen will have the chance to participate in substance use treatment and to work with a psychologist and social worker as well as with a restorative justice group, she said.

“This process specifically addresses accountability and empathy, which the [judge] specifically identified as lacking,” James said.

Silva also would be able to earn his high school diploma, take college courses and participate in a community work program before his release, the prosecutor said.

Questions from justices Thursday focused on how judges in juvenile cases balance the severe impact on victims with the priorities for rehabilitation set out in juvenile law.

Acting Chief Justice Andrew Mead described the statements made by victims’ parents and families at Silva’s sentencing hearing as “compelling, gut wrenching and full of pain.”

“How is that not a factor at sentencing?” he asked Peterson.

“Nowhere in the law does it say that victim impact statements should overcome the purposes of juvenile code,” Peterson replied.

James told the justices that Dow had taken into consideration the public’s safety, as the law requires, because the day after the crash the boy posted on social media that he would drive again and the judge did not believe the boy had shown sincere remorse over his friends’ deaths.

There is no timetable under which justices must issue a decision.