The Maine supreme court has upheld a Skowhegan teenager’s commitment to a youth detention center in South Portland, but the court’s chief justice issued a scathing opinion calling the lack of sentencing options in the state’s youth justice system a tragedy.

The juvenile, referred to in court records as J.R., will remain held at Long Creek Youth Development Center until his 18th birthday in March, according to the court’s opinion issued Tuesday.

Chief Justice Leigh Saufley authored a side opinion, supported by two other justices, criticizing the fact that courts had only two options for addressing J.R.’s criminal behavior – probation or incarceration.

Saufley acknowledged that the youth’s behavior was “spiraling out of control” and that he was likely to commit more serious crimes, “possibly harming other members of the public and certainly harming his own potential.”

“Nonetheless, 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,” Saufley wrote. “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.

“The lack of alternatives available to the court, to the youth and to 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,” she added.

Saufley said the state must find alternatives, which could include behavioral modification programs, residential treatment facilities, enhanced mental health treatment services and group homes with structure and oversight.

According to court records, the crimes J.R. committed were mostly property related, including taking possession of a stolen scooter and stealing marijuana and money from his brother, but he also destroyed windows, doors and surveillance cameras at a local public school, causing more than $2,000 in damage.

Between November 2016 and June 2017, J.R. rejected counseling and missed scheduled court dates.

J.R. admitted to criminal mischief and theft charges. The District Court in Skowhegan sentenced him to Long Creek for a period not to exceed his 18th birthday.

He began serving his sentence in October 2017 when he was 16.

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court said in its decision that while the courts try to focus on the rehabilitation of juveniles and to keep them as close to their families as possible, “J.R. asserts that commitment to Long Creek is not rehabilitative, but punitive.”

J.R. was represented in the Law Court proceedings by Portland-based defense attorney Tina Heather Nadeau.

“Long Creek is not a good place for children to be,” Nadeau said in an interview Wednesday. Her client is now 17. “He is not doing well there.”

She declined to elaborate on what she meant, citing client confidentiality.

“Given the crimes he admitted to, he was not a threat to public safety,” Nadeau added.

Nadeau said she is worried about J.R.’s mental and emotional health.

“You can’t forget that he is being held with kids who have committed murder,” she said. “He doesn’t have a violent bone in his body.”

Nadeau said she was disappointed with the Law Court’s ruling she is encouraged by Saufley’s opinion, which was supported by Associate Justices Ellen Gorman and Joseph Jabar.

“I’m encouraged that the Law Court and youth incarceration is now on the radar of the judiciary,” Nadeau said. “Getting the ear of the chief justice of the Maine Supreme Court is no small feat.”

Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

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