Maine’s top court was considering whether a 17-year-old with a pattern of behavior that “clearly portends future crime” should be sentenced to Long Creek Youth Development Center, the state’s youth prison, until his 18th birthday.

His initial offense was taking a scooter he knew to be stolen and damaging it by painting the number 420 on it. But before those charges had been resolved, he had already committed new crimes — destroying property at a local school.

Just months afterward, he had allegedly stolen a safe with money and marijuana from his brother.

As the court considered charges against the teenager, called J.R. in court documents, it released him on the condition that he participate in counseling. He didn’t participate.

Maine’s Supreme Judicial Court last week agreed with a lower court’s ruling to sentence him to Long Creek. But Chief Justice Leigh Saufley and two other justices lamented the fact that Long Creek appeared to be the only option.

“[T]he 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,” Saufley wrote in a concurring opinion. “While the lack of alternatives available today may not be directly contrary to the strictures of Maine law or the Constitutions, we can and must do better for Maine’s youth.”

It’s not clear exactly which alternative would have worked better in this situation. Saufley suggested investing in a “continuum of care” that “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.”

Virtually all of those options noted by Saufley have diminished in recent years. The reality that there are few viable options for helping out a young person with clear behavioral health needs is a symbol of what has happened to a state system of behavioral health services that saw substantial investment in the late 1990s and early 2000s, only to be essentially neglected since.

Funding for a whole range of children’s behavioral health services has remained stagnant for years. In 2015, the LePage administration proposed cuts so it could use the savings on services for disabled and elderly Mainers. Later, when lawmakers ordered the administration to commission a study to determine what the state should be paying for such services, the consultant the administration hired suggested reductions for a number of key services.

With reimbursement rates largely stagnant over the past decade, providing in-home behavioral health treatment for children as well as more intensive services has become less and less viable for behavioral health agencies.

Multisystemic therapy is specifically designed for crime-prone young people who don’t want to engage in therapy. The intensive treatment is delivered several times per week, for up to six months in families’ homes and communities. It involves working with a host of others in the young people’s lives, whether it’s parents, grandparents, neighbors, friends, teachers or probation officers, to create a consistent approach to addressing the problem behavior.

Maine once had 11 teams of professionals delivering this intervention. Today, the state is down to 4 ½ teams since it’s a money loser for the treatment providers.

Saufley homed in on this disinvestment that has led vital services that could prevent the need for youth incarceration to wither away. Maine’s next governor and Legislature would be wise to heed her message.

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