A 16-year-old steals a scooter. He paints the number “420” on it, celebrating marijuana use. He fails to show up for counseling appointments and a court hearing.

What do you do with a kid like that? In Maine, you might have to send him to prison.

That was the decision by a judge in Somerset County last year who committed the out-of-control kid to Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland.

The teenager wasn’t sent there because his crimes were so serious that they called for the most serious level of punishment available in a juvenile case (they weren’t), or because the community needed to be protected from him at any cost (it didn’t). He definitely wasn’t incarcerated because that’s the best way to treat whatever psychological conditions might have been behind his acting out. In fact, most experts would agree that a prison environment is the worst place to treat mental disorders.

No, he was sent to prison, at an approximate cost of $250,000 a year to the taxpayers, because that was the only option available to the judge, a position that was affirmed unanimously by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

And that, wrote Maine Chief Justice Leigh Saufley, is a tragedy.

“The lack of alternatives available to the court, to the youth and his family, and to the attorneys attempting to carry out the Legislature’s mandate for rehabilitation of a youth who is out of control, is both shortsighted and fraught with potential long-term consequences,” Saufley said. “We in government must find additional alternatives for our children and youth. That continuum of care should include both well-proven and promising innovative programs, including such options as evidence-based behavioral modification programs, residential treatment facilities, enhanced mental health treatment services, and even group homes with structure and oversight, within or near the communities of their families.”

Having Long Creek as the only option is not only a waste of money, it’s also counterproductive.

Last year, a team of juvenile justice experts released a report about Long Creek that found that despite dedicated staff and leadership open to new ideas, there were a number of serious problems. They include high turnover among the staff, which, combined with high rates of complex mental health issues among the youth, made for a dangerous environment for both.

They found that less than a quarter of the young people housed in the state’s highest-security juvenile facility were sent there for serious crimes. More than three-quarters of the youth had been adjudicated for crimes that would be considered misdemeanors in adult court, and roughly the same percent have mental health care needs.

In other words, they are sent to the most restrictive option in the state’s portfolio because it is the only option in the state’s portfolio.

Saufley is absolutely right, but as a judge she doesn’t make the law or enforce it. Maine needs to create the kinds of services she described as well as to support families so more of them can keep their youth out of the criminal justice system in the first place.

A state policy with the goal of closing Long Creek or shrinking it to a program that’s only big enough for the small number of youth who really need to be there should be the goal of everyone who is running for office in Maine this fall.

And any candidate who won’t commit to a plan that doesn’t spend $250,000 a year to house scooter thieves should be ready with a pretty good alternative.

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