Brian Sonenstein is a reporter covering incarceration and the prison abolition movement. He is a columnist for the Portland Phoenix, co-founder of, and co-host of the Beyond Prisons podcast.

On June 13, the Maine Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of “JR,” a 16-year-old boy appealing his sentence of up to 18 months in detention at the Long Creek Youth Development Center.

JR’s appeal challenges the use of juvenile detention for rehabilitation and, if successful, could reduce the number of children sent to Long Creek each year. (I wrote about his case in the Phoenix's April 19 issue, in an article titled “Locked Up For ‘Dumb Kid Stuff.’)

Maine’s juvenile code requires the state pursue the least-restrictive means for rehabilitation while preserving public safety.  

JR admitted to committing low-level misdemeanor property offenses in 2017. Prosecutors gave JR only a few months before seeking detention to get him “services” after he failed to participate in counseling in the community and missed a court date.

JR’s nonviolent conduct involves incidents like spray painting “420” on a scooter, throwing rocks at a school, and taking money and marijuana from his big brother.

“The state did not have the confidence it could protect the community and he would not commit new crimes,” Assistant District Attorney Carie James said last month in defense of his detention.

Anonymity is granted in misdemeanor juvenile cases to protect the privacy and welfare of the minor. Chief Justice Leigh Saufley sternly warned counsel not to divulge any information that could lead to JR’s identification.

Yet ADA James has named him and members of his family in public court filings and during oral arguments.

ADA James argues a teenager’s minor offenses and reluctance to cooperate with community-based services — ”dumb kid stuff” in the words of JR’s attorney — are grounds for detention. And in the shadow of towering evidence that Long Creek is harmful to children (see here and here and here) and that services there are illusory, she argues JR could benefit from being there.

When asked if JR was benefiting from Long Creek’s “services,” ADA James answered indirectly. She said his risk level had been raised, that Long Creek has programming, and that he was “doing well with school.”


The justices and prosecution are aware of Long Creek’s capacity for harms. However, they seemed unsure of how much the state should avoid sending children there.

They explored whether legislative and executive inaction, and a lack of funding for community-based alternatives, should really be to blame for JR’s long sentence of detention for such minor offenses.

ADA James admitted JR’s sentence would be extreme if he was tried for the same offenses as an adult. One justice felt he would have avoided detention had the proceedings happened in Portland (rather than Skowhegan District Court) because of harsher treatment in districts north of Cumberland County.

Rather than weigh the reality of the offenses and the totality of community options against the known harms of Long Creek, the justices chose to repeatedly ask JR’s attorney what she felt the state should have done differently.

“The judge should have taken pause and considered other options,” JR’s attorney, Tina Heather Nadeau told the court, adding the judge could have “slowed this process down to do it properly.”

“The court did not bend over backwards,” she said. “With juveniles, you have to try harder.”

JR spent 10 days in detention pretrial before going to Long Creek. He said those 10 days were enough to convince him to change course. The only control he has over his life in detention is whether or not to turn the light on in his room, he said, and he wants to be home with his mother.

Toward the very end of the proceedings, ADA James conceded that a 30-day suspended sentence, where JR would have to comply with services in the community to avoid a month in detention, was one alternative that could have been pursued.

In closing, the court asked Nadeau one last time: “What did you want the court to do?”

“Better,” she said. “I wanted them to do better by this kid.”


Brian Sonenstein can be reached at

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