For Young Offenders in Maine, Justice Varies With Geography

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Aroostook County, in Maine’s far north, is the largest county east of the Mississippi, a sparsely populated region of fields and forests with just two small cities and about 50 smaller towns. Police chiefs describe their jurisdictions as sleepy, with little serious crime.

Even so, the county has sent a disproportionate number of adolescents in recent years to the state’s only youth prison.

Between 2017 and 2023, there were 20 commitments to Long Creek Youth Development Center from Aroostook — nearly double the number from York County, which has more than three times as many residents at the other end of the state.

Aroostook was also an outlier for using short prison terms, known as “shock” sentences, to punish young offenders, handing them down at some of the highest rates statewide before the practice began to wane.

York County, which includes wealthy coastal communities and former mill towns that help make up Maine’s largest metropolitan area, rarely imposed such sentences.

For more than a decade, Maine has emphasized rehabilitation in its approach to juvenile justice, sending fewer teenagers to prison. The change is in keeping with a national movement to consign fewer youth to the criminal justice system, especially correctional settings, which a growing body of research shows can often do more harm than good at preventing delinquency.

But the differences between Aroostook and York Counties show that the effort has played out unevenly, resulting in justice by geography. The disparity appears to stem from philosophical differences over the appropriate response to teenagers who get in trouble, the varying availability of services across the state and the unequal distribution of lawyers and caseloads, according to interviews with defense attorneys, law enforcement officials and former corrections officials.

York stood out even beyond its low commitment rate. Adolescents there were far less likely to end up with a felony record than anywhere except for neighboring Cumberland County, according to a data analysis by The New York Times and The Bangor Daily News. Between 2017 and 2022, those counties reduced 93 percent of felony cases that resulted in a guilty plea to misdemeanors. At the low end, two central Maine counties reduced them only about half the time; in Aroostook, that rate was 64 percent.

William Francis, a juvenile community corrections officer in Aroostook for more than 30 years, said his supervisors at the Maine Department of Corrections were concerned about the commitment rates in his county and used to tell him that practices should be the same everywhere. “‘What happens in Aroostook should be what happens in York,’” he repeated in an interview. Given the variables in each location, he recalled thinking, “Be real.”

But such differences are troubling to many involved in the juvenile system. “Justice should not be defined by where in the state a child lives,” said Sarah Branch, a former juvenile prosecutor who is now a defense lawyer and director of the Youth Justice Clinic at the University of Maine School of Law. “What we have right now are barriers for some children that don’t exist for others.”

The system needs better oversight to ensure consistent, effective outcomes, according to juvenile law and policy experts as well as a 2020 state-commissioned assessment.

Prosecutors and defense lawyers often can’t compare outcomes for similar offenses across jurisdictions, leaving them to rely on anecdotal information. While the Corrections Department publishes general statistics online about Long Creek admissions and juvenile criminal referrals from police agencies, it can be difficult to obtain more granular information because much of it is confidential or isn’t collected in formats that are easy to analyze. And the state court system, which is paper-based, is constrained by its limited digital data.

No independent entity holds the system accountable for measuring and improving outcomes, said Jill Ward, who leads the Center for Youth Policy and Law at the university. Unlike the other New England states, Maine does not have an ombudsman who can investigate confidential cases, analyze data and issue public reports about successes and failures.

The 2020 assessment recommended that state officials develop a plan to address a range of problems, including geographic inequities. But that never happened. Ms. Ward, who helped lead the task force that produced the report, called that “a missed opportunity.”

Ben Goodman, a spokesman for Gov. Janet Mills, did not address the oversight issues in the system but described a commitment to diversion programs throughout the state. “The administration recognizes there is more work to do,” he said, citing challenges including “the difficulty of the work” and staffing shortfalls.

In a statement, the Corrections Department said it had a limited ability to control for disparities in the juvenile system because “various actors” — police, prosecutors, judges — influence cases.

Samuel W. Prawer, the department’s director of government affairs, said his agency had made “significant efforts” to invest in mental health and mentorship programs for youth, and acknowledged that these were needed in every part of the state. But such efforts “rely on appropriate funding,” he said.

“While we do not have control over the judicial system’s decisions, we will continue to do our best within our budget resources to expand access to community and home-based services and support diversion away from incarceration where deemed appropriate,” Mr. Prawer said.

Justice by geography isn’t unique to Maine. Across the United States, the idiosyncrasies of local courts affect case outcomes, and variation is especially likely in the juvenile system with its emphasis on individualized treatment. Last year, a nonprofit advocacy group in Massachusetts identified wide-ranging differences depending on which police department, district attorney and court handled a case. Similarly, a 2005 study of Missouri’s juvenile system found that teenagers’ odds of confinement changed with where they lived.

Most juvenile crime in Maine involves misdemeanors like assault, theft and property destruction. But the rates at which adolescents pleaded or were found guilty varied widely, according to the Times/BDN analysis. York County had the lowest rate, at 14 percent, while Aroostook had the highest, at nearly 60 percent.

In Aroostook, a 16-year-old killed an older man during a drug-related robbery in 2015, one of eight murders by minors in the state since 2010, but local law enforcement officials said in interviews that serious juvenile crime was rare.

“Major situations? Like down south?” said Michael DeLena, the police chief in Fort Kent, a town of about 2,500 along the Canadian border. “We don’t see that. It’s more small things.” The cases he considered most worrisome involved repeat offenders, typically charged with theft, property destruction, drunken driving or fighting.

Tanya Pierson, a longtime juvenile prosecutor with the York County District Attorney’s Office, said her colleagues did handle more serious crimes, including those committed with guns, such as robbery, a shooting and making a threat with a firearm.

That is true in neighboring southern counties as well. Police in Lewiston, the state’s second-largest city, have responded to multiple shootings in recent years where youth were charged. Last month, Portland police officers arrested two teenage boys accused of robbing a woman at knifepoint while she sat in her parked car. And three 17-year-olds were recently sent to Long Creek after a rolling gunfight in Portland; police said they and other teenagers were involved in a cocaine-trafficking ring.

Mr. Francis, who retired in 2021, primarily covered northern Aroostook during his time as a community corrections officer. He was known for his “tough-love” approach, and toward the end of his career, he said, he butted heads with his supervisors over the department’s shifting policies, especially concerning commitments.

During that period, the state took a more progressive approach and worked to reduce youth incarceration. But the push to lower commitments also came from mounting public pressure after Long Creek, located in South Portland, had become mired in controversy following a teen suicide, chronic staff shortages, riots and a vote by lawmakers to shut the prison down, which Ms. Mills vetoed.

Since then, the administration has been faulted for not adopting a comprehensive plan to fill severe gaps in community services statewide for troubled youth, develop alternative secure sites to Long Creek and stabilize the prison. Tumult at the site has continued, with several major disturbances since November, and on Friday, it was announced that the prison’s superintendent of two years was stepping down for unspecified personal reasons.

While the number of adolescents from Aroostook sent to Long Creek has fallen since the beginning of the pandemic, which significantly drove down the prison’s population, the county still had the highest rate of commitments in Maine from 2017 to 2023, according to the Times/BDN analysis of data provided by the Corrections Department. The county also recorded 26 shock sentences, the same as Cumberland County, which is the state’s largest and has the highest volume of juvenile cases. (Other counties stood out for high rates of shock sentences, including Androscoggin, home to Lewiston, and rural Somerset in central Maine.)

District Attorney Todd Collins said sentences to Long Creek from Aroostook in recent years usually resulted from multiple probation violations that couldn’t be resolved out of court. “The threat of jail is to motivate the child,” he said in an interview.

Some of the underlying crimes involved theft, assault, stealing a car, drug possession, trespassing and making a threat, in one case with a weapon. In a few serious cases, such as one involving rape, he said his office viewed commitment to Long Creek as a more rehabilitative alternative to charging the teen in adult court.

Mr. Francis, who is a former police officer and member of the Maine Army National Guard, recalled that a few years ago, his bosses told him that they were concerned that Aroostook County was an outlier for its high commitment numbers and urged him to find more creative ways to support youth in the community.

“I got called on the carpet more than once,” Mr. Francis said.

Corrections officials discouraged his use of more traditional law enforcement tools, such as drug testing, he said, which could identify probation violations and lead to incarceration. He refused to refer adolescents to a restorative justice program — a diversion effort that would make offenders confront the harm they caused — because he was skeptical of its value. He felt strongly about following through with consequences if teenagers violated probation, he added, worrying that a lack of action would increase their chances of ending up in the much harsher adult criminal justice system.

For example, he recalled, a boy on probation was sent to Long Creek after stealing thousands of dollars from his family’s business. In other cases, like commitments involving sexual assault, there were concerns about people’s safety. “Remember the victims,” he said.

“Incarceration was always a last resort,” Mr. Francis said, agreeing with his supervisors on that goal, if not entirely on the philosophy behind it. “Punishment works. It’s become a bad word.”

And sometimes, he said, a commitment could save a life. He described the case of a young heroin addict who kept violating her probation by using and selling drugs. Worried she might die, he pushed to send her to Long Creek, the only locked facility available. She later thanked him, he said.

Mr. Francis was one of four community corrections officers working in Aroostook. It’s not clear how much his views contributed to the county’s relatively high commitment rate. While he made recommendations to prosecutors and judges, they were the ultimate decision makers.

The judge who most often oversaw his cases had more liberal views. In an interview, David Soucy, who presided over District Court in northern Aroostook for 11 years until retiring in 2021, called incarceration and punitive approaches to delinquency “wasteful and ineffective and honestly cruel.”

The commitments he ordered, he said, “always had to do with either a lack of available resources or a secure home for people who were seriously out of control.” Sometimes “it was a matter of preservation — to keep them alive,” he said.

Mr. Soucy lamented what many police officers, prosecutors, families and advocates have also pointed out: The state’s pressure to keep adolescents out of Long Creek has not coincided with an equally forceful effort to build up rehabilitation programs in their communities or intervention efforts that would reduce their risk of entering the justice system in the first place.

For instance, Aroostook County, one of the state’s poorest, once had at least three group homes for teenagers who needed supervision, Mr. Soucy said, but now it has none. During the pandemic, the county’s last residential treatment facility for children closed and reopened as a youth homeless shelter and transitional living program, addressing a growing need but not filling the gap for those who require more care.

It’s difficult to find therapists in the county, which is one of only two without an intensive in-home behavioral health program aimed at keeping youth out of the justice system; it’s hard to scale a costly service over such a large area. Many young offenders also have drug problems, but the state’s only residential program is far away, close to Portland, with few slots. A lack of public transportation in most rural counties further limits access to health services as well as education and work opportunities.

Even for commitments, Mr. Soucy had no choice. The state used to operate a second youth prison in Penobscot County, which borders Aroostook, but it stopped holding minors in 2015. For a while, the former judge said, he at least hoped that troubled youth would get help at Long Creek, but he became disillusioned after reports about its deteriorating conditions.

He tried not to let the state’s concern about Aroostook’s commitment numbers influence his decisions from the bench, he said, warning that disparities in a system with relatively small numbers could be insignificant or misleading. “It’s a desperate situation,” Mr. Soucy said. “You either did nothing, or this draconian alternative of incarceration away from home in southern Maine.”

The counties in the south of the state — little more than an hour from Boston — have more juvenile cases, allowing for more specialization in juvenile law among defense lawyers, prosecutors and judges, which could affect how cases are resolved.

For instance, Ms. Pierson, the York County prosecutor, and Michelle McCulloch, a veteran juvenile prosecutor in Cumberland County, both said their offices were highly motivated to reduce felonies as part of plea deals. Teenagers who have been found guilty of a felony — which becomes public record — may have to disclose that on applications for school, jobs or professional licenses, and it typically bars them from enlisting in the military, Ms. Pierson said.

“If our goal is rehabilitation and for them to become a productive member of society, that’s the best way to do it: through education, having a job where they can support themselves,” she said. As a prosecutor, she must protect public safety and consider input from victims, she said, but added that she and some of her colleagues viewed commitment to Long Creek as a failure of earlier interventions and alternatives to prison.

More rural courts, however, see as few as a dozen juvenile cases a year. And while there are not nearly enough lawyers to represent poor defendants in Maine, the problem is acute in rural areas. Last year, the state created a special team of public defenders to combat the shortage in Aroostook, Penobscot and Washington Counties.

Sharon Craig, a defense lawyer who represents youth at Long Creek, recalled being assigned a client from Penobscot, where she doesn’t typically practice. She was surprised that the boy had been committed for nonviolent offenses that would not usually warrant such a penalty in southern Maine courts. He was also young, only 13, she said.

A month after he arrived, she said, staff members at Long Creek took steps to transfer him to a residential treatment facility.

Justin Mayo and Irene Casado Sanchez contributed reporting. Julie Tate contributed research.

This article was reported in partnership with Big Local News at Stanford University.


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