Chief Justice Leigh Saufley wrote Tuesday's Supreme Judicial Court opinion dismissing a 15-year-old boy's suit that argued he was illegally incarcerated at the state's youth prison because the state took four months to find a psychiatric treatment facility for him. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Tuesday dismissed a 15-year-old boy’s lawsuit alleging that he was illegally incarcerated at the state’s youth prison because the state took four months to find a psychiatric treatment facility for him.

Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley acknowledged in her 12-page opinion that efforts to find a suitable placement for the teen “were indisputably hindered by Maine’s lack of a meaningful continuum of care for youth-focused residential and home-like treatment resources.”

But she and four other justices said the case was moot because the teenager was transferred from Long Creek Youth Development Center to a New Hampshire facility last August.

While the boy’s lawyer and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine hopes the court would use the case to make a broader judgment about youth incarceration, Saufley said the case did not “present an opportunity for a definitive judicial pronouncement” that would force the state to build such a treatment facility and/or close Long Creek, which is located in South Portland.

The boy, referred to by the initials A.I. in court documents, has been in and out of Long Creek since he was 11. In July 2017, two guards allegedly knocked out his teeth. Last month, in a separate case, A.I.’s mother reached a $250,000 settlement with the Department of Corrections and the facility’s medical provider.

In April 2019, a District Court judge found that A.I. was incompetent to be tried on misdemeanor charges but most likely could become competent in the future. The judge ordered that A.I. receive competency restoration services, but he did not receive them, according to court documents filed in Portland. The state also could not find a residential treatment facility in Maine that could meet A.I.’s needs, so he remained at the juvenile detention center in South Portland.

Since then, all charges against A.I. have been dismissed.

Saufley, along with Justices Donald Alexander, Andrew Mead, Joseph Jabar and Thomas Humprey, agreed that his case is moot because A.I. was moved to Becket’s Mount Prospect Academy in Plymouth, New Hampshire, in August while his appeal to the state’s high court was pending. He had appealed a previous decision denying his release from Long Creek.

The teen’s attorney, Sarah Branch of Lyman, urged the court to rule on the underlying issues related to the incarceration of juveniles and the lack of residential psychiatric treatment facilities for them.

“The legal community and the larger community need to see if the state can imprison a child constitutionally,” she said in August. “We need to know if the state can still be allowed to do this in the future to other children.”

But the justices rejected that argument.

“The ability of the court to fashion an ‘authoritative determination for future rulings’…is not present in this case,” Saufley said. “Simply put, the youth’s unique and extensive needs, his history in other facilities and the evolving nature of his behavioral challenges prevent us from generating an authoritative opinion that would guide the court or the parties in future cases.”

Credit: Miles Greenacre | Maine Judicial Branch

A.I.’s prolonged detention has helped fuel a larger discussion about the state’s juvenile justice system. Some have called for Maine’s last juvenile detention center to be shut down and for more money be spent on mental health services for young people.

In a footnote in Tuesday’s opinion, Saufley referred to that discussion and a task force created by the Legislature to study alternatives to incarceration for juveniles. That task force’s report is due to the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee by Feb. 15.

Branch argued in the appeal that incarcerating a juvenile violates the due process clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The ACLU of Maine, the Disability Rights Center of Maine, Kids Legal Maine, the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, and the GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders in Boston filed a “friend of the court” brief in support of A.I.’s appeal.

Emma Bond, staff attorney at the ACLU of Maine, said it was time for the state to take action to help youth in situations similar to A.I.’s.

“This case has come to an end because A.I. is no longer incarcerated and all charges have been dismissed,” she said. “But there are still other young people held at Long Creek who are suffering from a lack of available care and support. It is unacceptable that prison is the only available option for them — it’s time for the state to start prioritizing community-based care over incarceration.”

The Maine attorney general’s office, which represented the state, filed a motion to dismiss A.I.’s appeal the day after he was moved to the New Hampshire facility.

Marc Malon, spokesman for the attorney general’s office, declined to comment on the Supreme Court decision Tuesday. A request for comment from Branch was not immediately returned.