An attorney for a 13-year-old Maine boy says he is being illegally detained at the state’s only youth prison after a judge ruled he is not competent to stand trial.

The case could take on broader significance as state officials consider the future of Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland and proposed reforms to the juvenile justice system in Maine.

“It is a case that everyone who works with youth in the system is watching,” said Chris Northrop, a clinical professor in the Juvenile Justice Clinic at the University of Maine School of Law.

Defense lawyer Sarah Branch last week filed a petition with the Maine Supreme Judicial Court for habeas corpus, or a request for the court to determine if the boy’s detention is legal.

The petition identifies the boy only by his initials – A.I. – and most information about his juvenile record is confidential. But Branch said he has a history of detention at Long Creek starting from when he was 11, and he has spent a combined eight months there out of the last 23. He has never been adjudicated, which is the juvenile equivalent of convicted. He has been found not competent to proceed four times in the last two years, most recently in April.

“He’s demonstrated that he doesn’t do well there,” Branch said. “He’s been there since December. Now he’s been found incompetent. Why is he still there?”

Officials from the Department of Corrections and Department of Health and Human Services did not answer specific questions about why the boy is still detained at Long Creek. They said some treatment services are available at Long Creek, and they pointed to a task force just formed to recommend changes to Maine’s juvenile justice system and alternatives to incarceration for youths.

“I can’t get into specifics of his treatment plan, but what I will say is that is a challenge in the state of Maine that community-based resources are limited,” Department of Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty said. “That is one of the areas that we are specifically researching to make more robust and more available.”

State law outlines what happens to both adults and juveniles who are found incompetent to stand trial. 

In an adult case, a judge can commit that person to the Department of Health and Human Services for treatment. Typically, that means he or she would be transferred to one of the state’s two psychiatric hospitals – Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta and Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center in Bangor. If that person becomes competent, the criminal case proceeds.

In a juvenile case, however, a judge must also decide whether the child is likely to become competent in the future. If the ruling is no, the criminal case will be dismissed, and the youth could be referred or committed to the department for treatment. If the ruling is yes, the case is suspended. The youth is referred to the department for treatment and further evaluation in hopes of gaining competency.

Northrop said most juveniles in that second category can receive services at home. Others go to private residential treatment programs; unlike the state psychiatric hospitals, those programs are not allowed to remove or reject patients. But Riverview and Dorothea Dix only accept adults, and the state does not have a comparable hospital for minors. So there are limited options if the court decides a youth needs a higher level of care or a secure facility, so those juveniles are sometimes kept at Long Creek.

“If you have a case where a youth falls into this particular category, and the court determines that detention is appropriate, it can be weeks or months while this child who is not competent to litigate their case is locked up,” Northrop said.

“There is a gap in services, and Long Creek is not appropriate to fill that gap,” he added.

In this case, Branch said that three times in the last two years the boy has been found not competent and unlikely to become so. Any prior charges have been dismissed. He was most recently detained at Long Creek on Dec. 28. Branch said he is facing multiple charges but declined to say what they are. A clerk at the Cumberland County Courthouse said only one is public – assault on an officer, which is a Class C crime, or a felony. Misdemeanor juvenile cases are confidential.

The court held a competency hearing in the boy’s case in April. Later that month, the judge ruled he was not competent but could potentially stand trial in the future. The order then directed the state to treat his mental health and behavioral needs.

Branch said that treatment has not happened. While she said a team of people is trying to find a better therapeutic placement for the boy, she believes the law requires them to do more and continued detention at Long Creek is unconstitutional.

“You cannot change the fact that it is a correctional facility,” Branch said.

Branch also wants him released as soon as possible from Long Creek because she said he had had a traumatic experience there at age 11. Court documents show his mother filed a lawsuit that claims guards knocked two of his teeth out while he was detained there two years ago, a claim the state has denied. The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine is representing the mother in that case, which is pending in federal court.

“Every time I talk to him, he just wants to go home with his mom,” Branch said. “It’s soul-crushing to hear him ask every time I call him.”

Branch filed a motion for contempt in April, but the judge has not acted on it. So she filed the petition for habeas corpus last week in Cumberland County. She did not request a specific placement upon his release.

“As a result of this failure to follow the court’s order, A.I. languishes in Long Creek,” she wrote in her petition. “Long Creek is not an appropriate place for treatment. Moreover, because of A.I.’s mental health conditions and complications associated with them, A.I. remains without treatment, in a prison with other juveniles pending adjudication, and in violation of his constitutional rights to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.”

Corrections officials said other placement options outside of Long Creek have been offered to the boy. But they refused to say what they were, when they were offered or why they have not been implemented.

“What I will say is the Maine Department of Corrections and the Maine Department of Health and Human Services are working very hard on this particular challenging case,” Liberty said.

Long Creek Superintendent Caroline Raymond said the facility offers school programming, special education services and access to psychiatric social workers to its residents. The boy’s status inside the facility has not changed since the judge’s ruling, she said, and he is currently the only detainee who has been deemed incompetent to stand trial.

“I think that we are providing him with the services that are necessary for him to advance toward (competency),” Raymond said. “I’m not a doctor and cannot say if that is the best place for him to receive those. … We do recognize that there are ways to improve the system, to build a more robust continuum of care where juveniles can receive the most appropriate services.”

A spokeswoman said the Department of Health and Human Services could not answer any questions about pending litigation or services provided to any specific individual. She also pointed to the task force and other initiatives to improve the juvenile justice system and mental health services for children in Maine.

“The department provides a range of behavioral health care to juveniles at Long Creek Youth Development Center, such as assessment, care coordination, crisis intervention, safety planning, and clinical services,” Jackie Farwell wrote in an email.

The habeas petition has been assigned to Associate Justice Ellen Gorman of the Supreme Judicial Court. Gorman will set the schedule and decide whether to schedule a hearing.

The case comes as the Legislature considers multiple bill proposals to reform the juvenile justice system, including one to raise the minimum age for incarceration from 11 to 14 years old. Northrop said research shows incarceration for youth has negative effects on their futures.

“Incarceration is particularly difficult for youth that have trauma backgrounds, and almost every youth who gets deep into the system has really significant trauma events in their childhood,” he said. “This becomes yet another traumatic event that all the science shows will make them more likely to be less successful.”

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