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Editorial: Treat 17-year-old offenders as juveniles

Last modified: 5/13/2014 2:37:26 PM
You don’t often hear politicians acknowledge they’ve acted in error, but that’s essentially what happened Wednesday in the New Hampshire House, and it was heartening indeed.

The House voted by an overwhelming margin to treat 17-year-olds accused of crimes as juveniles instead of adults. The measure would reverse a nearly 20-year-old law and put New Hampshire in line with most other states and the federal government. More important, it would acknowledge that a vote in 1996 to routinely treat 17-year-olds as adults was wrongheaded, substituting a “get tough on crime” mentality for more nuanced thinking about the brains of teenagers, their capacity to mature and the detrimental effects of tossing teenagers into adult prisons – both for those teens and for the broader society.

In most regards 17-year-olds are, rightly, treated by the state and society as juveniles. They can’t vote, drink, smoke or even watch an NC-17 movie. In New Hampshire, they’re no longer permitted to drop out of school. More important than any of those strictures, however, would be a law protecting them from routinely being treated as adults when they’re accused of criminal behavior.

Research from the MacArthur Foundation on the juvenile justice system concludes that common traits of adolescents – short-sightedness, impulsivity, susceptibility to peer pressure – can easily undermine their decision-making capacity. This makes them both less culpable for their transgressions and more capable of rehabilitation.

But punishing 17-year-olds like adults often does more harm than good – both for the young offenders and for the rest of us. “Youth adjudicated as adults are more likely to be re-arrested, to re-offend, to re-offend more quickly, and to re-offend with more serious crimes” than those who are treated as juveniles, according to a 2011 National Conference of State Legislatures report. Those convicted of nonviolent crimes at a young age may be forced to carry felony convictions on their records indefinitely, hampering future job opportunities. Those held in adult prisons are more likely to suffer physical and emotional abuse.

Former House speaker Bill O’Brien, who opposed the legislation, cited the grisly 2009 home invasion and murder in Mont Vernon as evidence that teens should be given no special treatment. Steven Spader, now serving a life sentence for killing Kimberly Cates and injuring her daughter, was 17 at the time of the crime. “Walking among us are monsters, and those monsters come in all ages,” O’Brien said.

But even under this legislation, prosecutors will retain the right to ask judges to certify teens as adults in particularly brutal crimes. The new law is aimed at the broader population of teen offenders, most of whom are charged with smaller offenses and will eventually walk free.

As with everything, there are also financial implications. There may be a small cost to the state, at least at first, as the switch is made. But in the long run, county taxpayers could save significant money by now complying with federal requirements that 17-year-olds be separated from older prisoners.

After several previous failed attempts, the House did the right thing this week. The Senate and governor should follow suit.


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