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House bill would cap age of juvenile offenders at 18

Lawless 17-year-olds may find themselves with new lodgings if a bill idling in the House can muster enough support this fall.

The legislation, HB 525, would raise the age cap for juvenile offenders from 17 to 18, meaning 17-year-olds who commit crimes would be moved or sent in the future to a youth detention facility, rather than county jails or a state prison, as has been common practice in New Hampshire for nearly two decades.

Those affected could still be tried as adults in cases involving high-level crimes.

Proponents of the bill say the change will ensure that criminals on the brink of adulthood are punished appropriately and will improve the odds that they will actually reform.

“We’re turning our backs on a population that is probably most right for rehabilitation,” said Rep. Daniel Itse, a Fremont Republican who has backed the bill and is on a House subcommittee now working on it. “This is the time when we can grab these individuals.”

Opponents, however, argue the move could be costly, have negative consequences for younger offenders and add an unnecessary legal hurdle in cases involving serious and violent crimes. The current system, they say, is working fine.

“They’ve been treated as adults for years,” said Michael Sielicki, Kensington police chief and the president of the state association of police chiefs. “There’s no reason to change it.”

New Hampshire once recognized 17-year-olds as minors in criminal cases, but it changed course in the mid-1990s following moves in several other states, including Massachusetts, to lower the cap from 18 to 17. The fear at the time, Itse said, had been that maintaining the higher limit while others didn’t would give drug dealers an incentive to use the older teens to smuggle drugs into the state, because, if caught, they’d receive a minimal sentence.

That concern has greatly diminished, he said, as all but nine states still have lower limits in place.

Itse and other supporters said the existing cap also makes no sense because 17-year-olds aren’t treated as adults in any other facets – they can’t vote, can’t lease an apartment, can’t rent a car. And unless they opt to stay – which is rare – those who are in the juvenile system are released when they turn 17, Itse said, leaving them often without services or other help to avoid returning to crime.

“To say you’re an adult now but we’re not going to treat you as an adult doesn’t sound right,” said Rep. David Bickford, a New Durham Republican and the bill’s chief sponsor.

Bickford said the change would also give more sentencing options to judges who are often reluctant to send nonviolent 17-year-old offenders to an adult facility, thereby increasing the odds those offenders receive punishment at all. And he emphasized that the bill is intended primarily for low-level crimes.

“This bill does not deal with someone who kills somebody,” Bickford said. “They don’t get out of anything.”

But Sielicki said he and other law enforcement officials are concerned that 17-year-olds placed in the juvenile facility could corrupt younger offenders, and that the older teens would use up recently restored state funding for programs and services for minors.

Rep. Shawn Jasper, a Hudson Republican, said it would also place an added hurdle for attorneys trying to prosecute 17-year-olds as adults in serious or violent cases.

Betsy Miller, executive director of the state Association of Counties, said her group, which includes the state’s jail superintendents, supports the bill for financial reasons, namely a federal provision that takes effect this year and requires teens in adult correctional facilities to be separated or directly supervised at all times. The provision, part of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, does not mandate the separation, but it ties funding to it; facilities that don’t comply could lose up to 5 percent of their federal backing. Having to adhere to those standards long-term will be expensive, Miller said.

She added that the number of teens who would be affected by the change is minimal. Jails across the state typically have no more than a handful of 17-year-olds at any one time, she said, and their average stays are just over a week.

This isn’t the first time this showdown has come before the House. Legislators have sparred over it several times since 2007, Itse said. The sticking point has always been over how expensive it will be to implement.

Maggie Bishop, executive director of the Division for Children, Youth and Families, which includes the Juvenile Justice Services, said it’s nearly impossible to calculate that. But she said there’s plenty of room at the Sununu Youth Services Center; the facility has about 60 youths, with capacity for more than twice that.

“If the law changes, there is definitely space,” she said.

Itse said his committee is weighing now whether to recommend phasing the bill in, moving the lowest-level offenders first to limit financial impacts and “demonstrate the world doesn’t go haywire when you do this.” The subcommittee will make a recommendation on it later this year.

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, jblackman@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)

gracchus, I say the more chances you give them, the better chance there is for them to wind up in the adult correctional system.

If they can drive a car, they should be treated as adults. If not, raise the driving age to 18.

Motor vehicle offenses already treat all drivers as adults. The subject legislation is not aimed at those offenses, nor at the more serious offenses, which are already cycled into the adult system by way of request to the juvenile court. Raising the age to 18 would allow services to continue for kids already in the system, who are now "aged out" at 17, when they still lack resources or skills to make it on their own. Those in the juvenile system before age 17 would be the primary beneficiaries of this bill, rather than the 17 year-olds who commit crimes. There are plenty of 17 year-olds who are not appropriate for adult penalties, and without this bill, the judges have no discretion to do the right thing by these kids.

Are you talking about criminals that are in the system, before they are 17? If so, I have no sympathy for them.

They are not "criminals that are in the system, before they are 17." They are kids - yes kids - who have made mistakes and ended up in the clutches of the system. Some of them are serious; many of them are a direct result of either their circumstances or their own lack of maturity. What matters is that they are kids, and earlier they are put in the adult so-called corrections system the less chance they have to ever become healthy, productive members of society. It isn't about sympathy. It's common sense.

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