Maine’s juvenile justice system has faced intense scrutiny since Charles Knowles, a 16-year-old transgender boy, killed himself at the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland in October 2016.

AUGUSTA — The chief justice of the state’s highest court asked Wednesday whether the state’s juvenile justice system is failing Maine’s troubled kids.

The comments came during oral arguments in an appeal by a Skowhegan teenager, referred to only as J.R., who is challenging his commitment to Long Creek Youth Development Center for up to 18 months for a string of property crimes. The teen was committed there after he racked up multiple charges in a short period, resisted following rules and participating in counseling, and failed to appear for a court date, leading to his arrest.

Assistant District Attorney Carie James argued before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court that the commitment to Long Creek for that long was appropriate after J.R. refused to follow conditions of release, participate in counseling and improve his behavior.

“He had the opportunity for probation,” James said. “He failed. Attempts to rehabilitate J.R. in the community were not successful.”

But Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley interjected, and asked James to “step out to 30,000 feet.”

“This is a juvenile who is 16 during most of this period of time,” Saufley said. “He is acting inappropriately, which is not unusual for a juvenile. He is not showing up where he should be, which is not unusual for a juvenile. And the only thing the state could figure out to get this young man back on the ordinary track is incarceration. And I want to be clear, Long Creek is not a treatment facility. These kids are in lock down. It changes who they are, it changes who they think they are. Have we not failed our kids?”

James said there is no secure residential facility short of Long Creek that would have been appropriate for J.R., and while a Department of Corrections official said the agency is in favor of creating community-based options for teens, there is a lack of funding to build them.

Chief Justice Leigh Saufley: “The continuum of care … for juveniles … goes from nothing that is particularly restrictive, to incarceration.”

“But the continuum of care that we have available for juveniles in the state of Maine goes from nothing that is particularly restrictive, to incarceration,” Saufley responded. “We just leap over all the other options that could provide long-term economic benefit to the state of Maine when they have healthy outcomes. What does the court do?”

Another justice also questioned whether there is a fundamental issue of fairness when a teenager whose conduct is handled through the juvenile justice system may be incarcerated longer than an adult charged with the same crimes.

“With his commitment, he will be locked up there for at least nine months to 18 months,” said Justice Jeffrey L. Hjelm. “That is galaxies away from what sentence could be imposed for an adult. How is that fair?”

During the arguments, justices also pressed J.R.’s attorney, Tina Heather Nadeau, for how the lower court judges and juvenile community corrections officers – who operate similar to probation officers but with closer involvement – could have acted differently in handling the outcome of J.R.’s criminal charges, which played out over about eight months between the end of 2016 and the summer of 2017.

Nadeau argued for a slowdown of the process and a more careful and thorough exploration of options – and bluntly told the nine justices that the lower courts should be “better,” Nadeau said.

“I wanted them to do better by this kid,” she said.

The broader challenges to Maine’s juvenile justice system loom over J.R.’s case. The system has faced intense scrutiny since Charles Knowles, a 16-year-old transgender boy, killed himself at Long Creek in October 2016.

Since Knowles’ death, advocates have called for the closure of Long Creek, and policy researchers have looked more deeply into the ways in which mentally ill children, who make up a large portion of Long Creek’s population, are not well-served there.

While the case prompted questions about the state of the juvenile justice system in Maine, the appeal before the justices could lead to a more narrow decision about the treatment of one individual.

The state juvenile justice code requires judges to seek the least-restrictive means of treatment or rehabilitation for a child, while balancing the larger interests of the safety of society. One issue in the case that Saufley noted Wednesday is that the judge who handed down J.R.’s commitment did not squarely address whether J.R. was a danger to the community.

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

[email protected]

Twitter: MattByrnePPH

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