Chief Justice Leigh Saufley asks a question during a hearing in the Maine Supreme Judicial Court in this April file photo. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

Maine’s top court ruled against a teenager challenging his imprisonment Wednesday, but did so with a sharp critique of the state justice system’s treatment of young people.

At issue was the case of a Skowhegan teen identified in court documents as J.R., who at the age of 16 was sentenced to Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland for a series of nonviolent property crimes.

That sentence could last until he turns 18, a period of nearly 18 months. The teen’s attorney argued the sentence was much more severe than what an adult would have received for similar crimes and that incarceration was an unjust punishment for a young person who was not considered a threat to the public.

Prosecutors countered that the teen was sent to the youth prison only after counseling failed and a residential treatment program determined he was a flight risk.

[Maine’s top court grapples with justice system’s treatment of youths]

In its ruling Wednesday, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court sided with the lower court, affirming the teenager’s sentence. But the decision carried a rebuke of the lack of treatment options for troubled young people short of locking them up.

“The fact that the court was left with two stark alternatives — probation, which would almost certainly fail, or incarceration, which has its own substantial negative repercussions — is a tragedy,” wrote Chief Justice Leigh Saufley in a concurrence filing supported by Justices Ellen Gorman and Joseph Jabar.

Saufley went on to add that the justice system “can and must do better for Maine’s youth.”

“We, in government, must find additional alternatives for our children and youth,” she wrote, in part. “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.”

Portland attorney Tina Nadeau, representing J.R., said in a statement that she agrees with Saufley’s sentiment, but said the law court’s ruling “does nothing to address the systematic failure head-on.”

[Mom sues Maine’s youth prison for allegedly ‘bashing’ her 11-year-old’s teeth out]

“The court, in its opinion, has once more authorized the infliction of incarceration — state-sanctioned trauma — in the name of ‘rehabilitation.’ Imprisonment makes children worse, not better. We are doing ourselves and our children no favors by convincing ourselves otherwise,” she said. “The current system has failed J.R. and untold numbers of this state’s most vulnerable children. … I can only hope and pray that his awful experiences at Long Creek do not haunt him into adulthood.”

J.R.’s case was the second prominent legal challenge to the South Portland prison within weeks when it was filed. It landed amid debate over how to improve conditions at the facility and calls for its closure, spurred by an inmate’s 2016 suicide, the revelation of Long Creek’s struggles to care for young inmates with deep mental illness and a staffing crisis there last summer.

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Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.