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State House Memo: ‘Tough on crime’ law is really the opposite

This year, the New Hampshire Legislature is again considering a proposal to raise the age from 17 to 18 for juveniles to be prosecuted as adults. HB 1624 will bring us in line with 40 other states that have raised the age. It will also help bring us into compliance with federal laws requiring those younger than 18 to be separated from those over age 18 in prison. This separation would be a large expense for the county jails.

Since 1996, 17-year-olds in New Hampshire accused of a crime, no matter how minor, have been charged as adults. This might seem like a way that our state is “tough on crime” but the facts tell us otherwise. An overwhelming body of evidence shows that sending kids to the adult criminal justice system increases the likelihood that they will repeat their crimes and even move on to more serious ones. Furthermore, there was testimony on HB 1624 that because adult punishment is inappropriate, 17-year-old offenders often go unpunished.

Why is recidivism higher nationally for teenagers who enter the adult criminal system? One reason is that young people in the juvenile system are required to participate in education and counseling, but in the adult system, they are not afforded age-appropriate services and often leave prison without continued oversight, rehabilitation or the skills they need to restart their lives. An adult record is a huge barrier to a successful future, limiting opportunities for education, employment, military service, and involvement in community life.

Last year, The Central Park Five, a film by New Hampshire’s own Ken Burns, aired on PBS. This film very painfully documents how five black and Latino teenagers, aged 14 to 16, were coerced to confess to a crime they did not commit and went to prison. Their convictions were overturned 13 years later when a convicted rapist and murderer confessed and DNA evidence proved that it was he alone who committed the crime. But the lives of five innocent kids were changed forever, and not for the better.

When kids are treated as adults, as the five in the Central Park case were, the odds of convicting the innocent are high. In most states, for example, a parent must be present when a young person is interrogated, but when the law defines that child as an “adult” for the purposes of criminal prosecution, parents don’t even need to be notified of an arrest. This is one area that The Central Park Five quite terrifyingly depicts.

When our Legislature voted to lower the age from 18 to 17 in 1996, there was the fear that drug dealers from Massachusetts would send juvenile “drug mules” here to commit crimes because our law was set at a higher age than theirs. But Massachusetts and other neighboring states have since raised the age back to 18, so the reason New Hampshire lowered the age no longer exists. In addition, we have a better understanding now of brain development in adolescents and we know more about the impulsiveness that leads them to poor choices. With appropriate punishment, we will ensure that more of our youthful offenders become contributing members of society.

We will need to expand education, rehabilitative services and juvenile probation to serve the 17-year-olds coming into the system, but the bed capacity at the Sununu Center is adequate, eliminating any construction costs. Furthermore, HB 1624 does not change current law that gives judges the discretion to transfer the relatively few cases where 17-year-olds are accused of serious felonies to adult court. But the majority would stay in the juvenile justice system, where their odds of rehabilitation are much higher.

The “tough on crime” law that has been on the books since 1996 is actually making our state less safe, but we have the opportunity to fix it. We have the ability to help kids who get in trouble turn their lives around and not become adult criminals. Since January, the House has voted twice – overwhelmingly – to approve the policy and financial impact of HB 1624.

We strongly urge our Senate colleagues to join us, a super-majority of the House, and the 40 states that have reversed themselves on this issue over the past two decades, and vote yes to raise the age this year.

(Rep. Mary Beth Walz is a Democrat from Bow. Rep. Daniel Itse is a Republican from Fremont.)

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