Too many juveniles locked up

The recent controversy about the operation of the Sununu Youth Services Center threatens to distract us from the real issues facing the New Hampshire juvenile justice system. If we are to address the immediate challenges facing the system and protect the long-term interests of our children and communities, we must begin with a few basic questions: Who should be confined at the Sununu Center? How long do we need to keep them there? And how can we use diminishing resources to meet the needs of court-involved children and keep our communities safe?

We are confining too many kids for minor crimes, keeping them too long and using our resources unwisely in the process.

It is easy to make the worst assumptions about children in the juvenile justice system, especially those held at the Sununu Center. Confidentiality puts information out of reach, and we often jump to the conclusion that confinement is only ordered because of real dangerousness, unsuitability for treatment in the community, or both. While some of the children at the Sununu Center cannot safely live in the community, there is compelling evidence that New Hampshire overuses confinement when it comes to dealing with juvenile offenders.

The most recent statistics available from the U.S. Department of Justice show that the average resident at the Sununu Center is a less serious offender than the average youth corrections resident nationally. Nearly a quarter of youth in the nation's juvenile corrections facilities are there for a serious violent crime, such as an assault causing injury, sexual assault, or robbery, while such offenders make up less than 10 percent of the Sununu Center population.

Given that most children at the Sununu Center pose a limited risk, one would expect that their stay there would be relatively short. However, Granite State children spend more time confined than the national average. Nationally, two-thirds of children are released after six months, while in New Hampshire the average length of stay is between eight and 12 months.

One might respond to these figures by concluding that New Hampshire is fortunate to be able to respond to relatively minor juvenile crime more effectively than the rest of the country. And pride might be in order if more confinement meant better treatment, but holding minor offenders in secure facilities does not lead to better long-term safety. Children treated in community settings consistently have lower recidivism rates than similar children handled at secure facilities.

Lower recidivism and safer communities should be enough of a justification to take a second look at our confinement practices, but our overuse of the Sununu Center raises other concerns. By confining children who can be successfully treated in the community, we are unnecessarily subjecting them to the risks of injury and emotional trauma that even the

best-run institution presents. The children at the Sununu Center are particularly vulnerable, as the overwhelming majority of them have emotional and related problems, and few received effective treatment before their involvement in the justice system. Because community-based treatments are less expensive and more effective, we are misapplying limited resources at a time when crucial services are threatened by fiscal shortfalls.

The population at the Sununu Center has declined in recent years, creating reason to believe that New Hampshire is becoming more careful about secure confinement of children. Unfortunately, this decline has triggered proposals to fill the facility with children who are currently living successfully in the community and often haven't committed any crimes at all.

We urge the state to re-examine its approach to working with juveniles in the future. It is our hope that New Hampshire children will continue to receive safe, effective, and less expensive community-based treatments rather than expensive institutional treatment at the Sununu Center.

Let's keep children with their families and in their communities as they receive the treatments they need to grow into healthy contributing citizens of our state.

(Ellen Fineberg is executive director of the Children's Alliance of New Hampshire. Marilyn Mahoney is chairwoman of the board of trustees of Child and Family Services. Michael Skibbie is policy director at the Disabilities Rights Center.)

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