A teenager from Skowhegan being held at Long Creek Youth Development Center is asking the state’s highest court to overturn his nearly 18-month commitment there in a case that also challenges a basic premise in state law – that youth jail is an appropriate setting to rehabilitate youths accused of minor crimes.

The teenager, referred to as J.R. throughout court papers, was 15 years old when he was charged in juvenile court with a series of property crimes between November 2016 and June 2017, including one burglary felony that later was dropped to a misdemeanor.

J.R.’s attorney, Tina Heather Nadeau of Portland, argued in briefs submitted Friday to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court that J.R. landed in Long Creek, in part, because the state had no other place to send him, and that the juvenile court abused its discretion when it failed to properly evaluate whether J.R. posed a sincere danger to society and therefore had to be locked up.

On a broader level, Nadeau also argues that because of advancements in how scientists understand youth brain development, J.R.’s imprisonment constitutes a punishment not envisioned by the state’s juvenile justice laws.

“What this case amounts to on some level, because Maine doesn’t have appropriate services or a continuum of care to address minor behavioral issues, kids are punished for the failures of adults, and we see that all too often in the juvenile system,” said Christopher Northrop, a clinical professor at the University of Maine School of Law and director of the Juvenile Justice Clinic.

Northrop said that if the court accepts Nadeau’s larger argument for the law to embrace recent science and case law from throughout the country, it could have a broader impact on how children are sentenced throughout the state.

The case is among the first few being presented to the Supreme Judicial Court since the Legislature tweaked a state law in 2015 that allowed juveniles to appeal directly to the state’s highest court. If successful, J.R.’s appeal could redefine how judges view the option of incarceration when they sentence young offenders who do not pose a serious risk to the community or themselves.

“Over the past several decades, developments in psychology and brain and social science have shaped our perception of the profound differences between juvenile and adult minds,” Nadeau wrote. “Research on adolescent brain development confirms our common-sense understanding that children are different from adults in ways that are critical to understanding juvenile criminality and age-appropriate criminal sentences.”

STATE: J.R. JAILED AS A LAST RESORT

But the state has argued in court filings that it has followed the letter of the law as it pursued an outcome in J.R.’s case, and that the state’s attempts to keep J.R. out of Long Creek and in his home community to receive treatment were unsuccessful when the boy refused to participate in counseling, stopped going to school, did not live at home or agree to alternative living arrangements, and resisted engaging with a court-ordered case manager who was supposed to help guide him toward the services he needs.

“Unfortunately, after having exhausted all available options in the community, the only option remaining was commitment to (Long Creek) for treatment and rehabilitation,” wrote Carie James, the assistant district attorney in Somerset County who prosecuted J.R.’s case.

Nadeau’s appeal is the most recent avenue for advocates to challenge juvenile incarceration in Maine, which has drawn new scrutiny since the death by suicide of a 16-year-old transgender boy in November 2016.

Since then, outside groups have found Long Creek to be ill-suited to the population of young people incarcerated there, many of whom have one or more mental health diagnoses. A study by the Washington, D.C.-based Children’s Center for Law and Policy found that the circumstances at Long Creek have led to dangerous conditions for children committed there and the employees, and have hampered the institution’s ability to fulfill its rehabilitative mission.

Long Creek has increasingly come under fire from social justice organizations, including the ACLU of Maine, which filed an amicus curiae brief in J.R.’s case laying out some of the changes in social science that underpin its argument that Long Creek should be closed and children should not be jailed.

In its filing, the ACLU argued that the state’s model of placing children from all over the state into a centralized institution unnecessarily traumatizes children who spend time there, places them at undue risk for physical harm and leads to worse outcomes later in life, including a greater risk of recidivism and poor mental health outcomes.

The state has committed to moving toward community-based treatment and has made significant headway in reducing the statewide population of children being held in correctional settings, but the LePage administration has put forth no major proposals regarding Long Creek.

REHABILITATING YOUTHS VS. RISK TO COMMUNITY

J.R.’s trouble with the law began in January 2017, when the Somerset County District Attorney’s Office filed charges stemming from an incident in November 2016 when J.R. received a scooter that belonged to the mother of another Skowhegan boy. J.R. then painted “420” on the vehicle. He was charged with receiving stolen property and criminal mischief, court documents show.

In April 2017, J.R. was charged with a new crime when the DA’s office alleged that in February of that year, J.R. intentionally destroyed or damaged doors, windows and surveillance cameras at an MSAD 54 school, netting him one count of aggravated criminal mischief. The charge was a felony because the value of the damage was $2,500, above the $2,000 threshold that elevates such crimes from a misdemeanor.

J.R. was due back in court for a June hearing on all the charges he faced, but he did not show up and a warrant for his arrest was issued.

Then about a month later in July 2017, prosecutors charged J.R. with felony burglary and two counts of misdemeanor theft.

According to his attorney, J.R. went a couple of houses down from where he was living and broke into his older brother’s home. Once inside, he stole a small amount of marijuana, some cash and a safe containing legal documents and a government electronic benefits card, his attorney said.

Police did not catch up to J.R. until October, when he was arrested on the outstanding warrant and other charges.

During the time between his court appearances, the state argues that J.R. demonstrated an unwillingness to participate in his own treatment and rehabilitation. He “couch-surfed” and did not live at home, and while his mother pleaded with the judge not to lock up her son, the state argued that she appeared unable to get him the help he needed.

At his final dispositional hearing, J.R.’s attorney argued for a 30-day “shock sentence,” but the state said no therapeutic work could occur in that time, and that under state law, juveniles cannot be committed to the state’s custody for less than one year.

The state’s juvenile justice laws prioritize rehabilitation and treatment of young people so they may re-enter society and have a chance to become productive adults. In line with these goals, judges are required to seek the least-restrictive means of treatment or rehabilitation for the child, while balancing the larger interests of the safety of society, the risk the child will re-offend and the welfare of the child, among other considerations.

The state argued that J.R.’s placement in Long Creek was appropriate because his conduct was escalating, he was at risk of committing more crimes, and previous alternatives to incarceration did not succeed.

Oral arguments in J.R.’s case before the Supreme Judicial Court are expected in the coming months.

Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MattByrnePPH

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