House passes Sununu Center bill without legal changes that worried child advocates

By ANNMARIE TIMMINS

New Hampshire Bulletin

Published: 03-23-2023 7:15 PM

Advocates for children, law enforcement, and state mental health officials prevailed Thursday in persuading House members to reject legislation they said would have risked putting more juveniles at the Sununu Youth Services Center.

In doing so, the state moves closer to replacing the 144-bed correctional center with a much smaller therapeutic facility, advocates said. 

That outcome didn’t look likely for much of the hour-long debate on the House floor. Both sides argued their version of House Bill 49 was the one that best supported at-risk children.

In a 200-179 vote, members initially passed an amended version of the bill that would have set a higher bar for committing a child to the center in a few ways.

It would have limited the types of qualifying offenses by removing simple assault and domestic violence from the list. It would also have prevented law enforcement and the courts from using the center as a secure placement unless the juvenile had been found delinquent in three separate incidents in the prior 12 months. 

Child advocates argued that what sounded like greater protection for juveniles would have inadvertently led to them facing more – and more serious – charges. It proved to be a complicated argument to make.

Currently the Division of Children, Youth, and Families, law enforcement, and the courts often agree to defer charges that could land a juvenile at the center to instead put them in a therapeutic but secure alternative setting. But law enforcement and the courts like having the center as an option in rare but serious cases. 

Under the amendment, they’d hold onto that option only if a juvenile had three court convictions in the prior 12 months. Advocates argued that would lead law enforcement to defer fewer cases in order to meet the “three strikes” requirement.

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The amendment would have also set staffing ratio and budget requirements advocates called concerning.

Rep. Jess Edwards, an Auburn Republican, warned the House Thursday that the amendment would not only harm kids but also likely fail in the Senate, where members have indicated they oppose making changes to the legal process. 

Defeat in the Senate would likely further delay the state’s plan to close and replace the Sununu center, which is already behind schedule. 

“We’ve got to stop the delay, and we’ve got to move forward,” he said. “If this…bill gets to the Senate, it’s going to be rejected, and we’re going to end up going into another committee of conference or maybe a committee of chaos. We should not do what we know will fail.”

Edwards’ argument persuaded the House, which voted 276-104 to pass the bill without changes to the types and number of offenses required to commit a juvenile to the center. 

Many of the advocates who backed Edwards’ version of the bill were watching the vote from the House gallery Thursday. Among them was Joe Ribsam, director of the Division of Children, Youth, and Families. 

“My first response is just one of immense gratitude for the entire community of folks who work with this population of kids every day coming together to speak with one voice about what the right next step is,” he said in an interview following the vote. “And for the members who listened. I think this is a great day for us to finally move forward and make sure that our kids get the trauma-informed therapeutic care that they deserve in a treatment setting and other than a correctional center.”

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