How the court side of juvenile justice works

Monitor staff
Published: 9/16/2018 7:50:49 PM

The path to the Sununu Youth Detainment Center for children, regardless of whether they have a behavioral health disorder or not, begins in the criminal justice system.

The Sununu Center is the most restrictive placement option for juveniles and is supposed to be used only as a “last resort,” for serious and/or chronic juvenile offenders, according to a Department of Health and Human Services report on the adequacy of New Hampshire’s child welfare system released in August.

There are several reasons juveniles may be detained or committed to the Center, such as community safety, volatile behavior, and a risk of absconding. Juveniles can either be detained at the Center while awaiting adjudication or committed after they’ve been found guilty of a crime.

But when the child mental health system struggles to meet the needs of its charges, a child can end up in the Sununu Center due to a lack of viable alternatives, said Michael Skibbie, policy director for the Disability Rights Center in New Hampshire.

“There are a high number of kids who have had half a dozen failed alternative placements,” he said. “They’re not kids who should be placed in the Sununu Center because they are dangerous; it’s because we’ve said ‘we need to try something else and nothing’s working.’”

There are three different types of juvenile cases in the state’s circuit court, said Judge Edwin Kelly, administrative judge of the state’s circuit court system: delinquency, Child in Need of Services (CHINS), and abuse and neglect.

CHINS cases and delinquency cases are similar in that both require the assigning of a juvenile probation and parole officer to the youth. But that’s about where the similarities end; CHINS deal specifically with children who are truants from school, frequently run away, or engage in criminal or motor vehicle violations.

Delinquency cases are generally brought by police and have many of the same features as the adult system: the charges are similar, children can be appointed a lawyer if their family cannot afford one, and the court is burdened with proving their case.

A juvenile probation and parole officer (JPPO) is charged by the court to do an assessment of the child’s background within 30 days of their initial hearing; that report can include recommendations for punishment, Kelly said.

Kelly said the juvenile justice system is, by law, more focused on rehabilitation than punishment.

“It’s extremely atypical that a child be sent to jail,” he said. “… (Punishment) is theoretically a part of the process, it’s not the primary focus.

“Once you get past the finding of delinquency, the focus is back on the child,” he added.

Part of the probation officer’s job is to interview people in the child’s life to get a sense of why they committed the crime. This can include conversations with lawyers, health providers, family and school staff. A child’s behavioral health doesn’t get considered until the dispositional hearing, Kelly said unless there’s a competency issue.

Kelly used the example of a child breaking a window. “If that young person just sort of did it in anger, the court would order the child to reimburse the owner of the window,” he said. “If, on the other hand, the broken window is evidence of mental health or behavioral issue, it’s not isolated, it’s going to become obvious.”

If mental health is the underlying cause, the court can order services for the child the family may have to reimburse at a later date.

As lawmakers have tried to cut down on the costs of operating the Sununu Center – as well as acknowledging the harm that can come from placement there – the types of crimes where commitment is viable have changed.

Commitment may be ordered “for any offense which would be a felony or class A misdemeanor if committed by an adult” if the minor has previously committed at least three felonies or class A misdemeanors prior, according to state law, RSA 169-B. Earlier this year, the Legislature voted to only allow commitment to the Sununu Center if there is “clear and convincing evidence” that commitment is necessary to protect the safety of the minor or of the community.

Kelly said there is “real concern” about detaining children in a secure facility.

“It is extremely harmful to a large swath of kids that come through,” he said. “Those inside the court system try to keep the number down, because they recognize the impact on a young child.”

For real change to occur, there needs to be a cultural change, Kelly said, particularly in recognizing what causes children to cross paths with the juvenile justice system, such as behavioral health problems or abuse and neglect.

“The average person had no idea what we’re dealing with,” he said. “They immediately see the child as a serious problem … the community at large wants to see punishment, and they use an adult theory on children.

“We tell judges children are not little adults,” he went onto say. “They’re not adult-like, and we can’t treat them that way.”

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