State Must Stop Incarcerating Children Who Have Been Found Incompetent to Stand Trial, Say Groups

Portland – The Maine Supreme Judicial Court will hear arguments today, October 7 at 1:30 p.m. over whether the State can incarcerate youth who are found to be mentally unfit to stand trial. Several groups filed an amicus brief in support of a 13-year-old boy, identified as A.I., who has serious mental illness and cognitive disabilities and who was detained in Long Creek Youth Development Center for months after a judge found him incompetent to stand trial.

A.I. was first detained at Long Creek when he was just 11 years old, and was most recently held at the youth prison for several months before the State transferred him to an out-of-state residential facility, far from his family. A.I. has never been adjudicated, meaning he has never been found guilty of committing any crime.

In June, Maine Supreme Judicial Court Justice Ellen Gorman refused to order A.I.'s release, pointing to a “systematic lack of adequate resources” in Maine for youth with mental illnesses and cognitive disabilities. The boy's attorney, Sarah Branch, appealed that decision to the full panel of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

The ACLU of Maine, Disability Rights Maine, GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders, Juvenile Law Center, Kids Legal and the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers jointly signed on to an amicus brief asking the Court to declare A.I.’s prolonged incarceration unconstitutional. 

In the brief, the groups argue that the prolonged detention of youth who have been found incompetent to stand trial is a violation of children’s due process rights, just as it would be with adults. They further argue that the State failed to provide A.I. with adequate rehabilitation services while he was held at the youth prison.

The amicus brief can be found here: https://www.aclumaine.org/sites/default/files/ai_habeas_amicus.pdf

The following quotes can be attributed as noted:

Emma Bond, Staff Attorney, ACLU of Maine: “It’s a basic tenet of our justice system that we don’t hold adults in prison who are incompetent to stand trial. Yet somehow, we’ve become comfortable with locking up kids with severe mental illness and cognitive disabilities. Just because they’re kids doesn’t mean we can completely ignore due process and put them in jail without a trial.”

Jeffrey Skakalski, Staff Attorney, Disability Rights Maine: “It is unconscionable and illegal to warehouse juveniles who are not mentally competent to stand trial in a state correctional facility due to the State’s inability to meet their needs in their homes and communities. This practice also unjustifiably exposes vulnerable children who are presumed innocent of the charges against them to the very real risk of permanent psychological and physical harm. The relevant State officials and corresponding branches of government must take decisive and immediate action to put an end to this injustice.”

Mary Bonauto, Civil Rights Project Director, GLAD: “ We have to do better by children who need care and mental health treatment than warehousing them in youth prisons. The good news is that we can do better by reinvesting the millions of dollars and staff resources we spend on youth incarceration into a network of community-based support systems that truly help them heal, grow and contribute to our State.”

Marsha Levick, Chief Legal Officer, Juvenile Law Center: “As the rest of the nation moves away from a model of youth incarceration, Maine continues to lock up kids who would more effectively be cared for outside of prison. Incarceration under these circumstances is an especially inappropriate use of secure confinement. Other states are ending their reliance on youth prisons, and Maine can too.”

Courtney Beer, Directing Attorney, Kids Legal: “Officials insist that children in Maine are being locked up in prison because we don’t have any alternative options. The mental health, social-emotional, and educational needs of Maine’s children cannot be met in prison. As long as we keep spending money to keep kids in prison, we’ll never have the will or the resources to create those very alternatives that we desperately need.”

Tina Nadeau, Executive Director, MACDL: “Locking up children does nothing to address the underlying issues that lead to contact with the legal system in the first place and actually makes it harder for young people to grow into healthy adults. Children do not belong in prison. Incarcerating ill children and further traumatizing them is a gross misuse of our legal system.”

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