Opinion: Transforming and modernizing juvenile justice

Published: 12/6/2022 1:58:34 PM
Modified: 12/6/2022 1:58:12 PM

Joe Ribsam is director of the Division for Children, Youth & Families at the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services.

Over the last five years, New Hampshire has transformed the way it serves juvenile offenders. During this time, the number of youth in detention at any one time has fallen from a peak of 75 to an average of twelve, a reduction of 600%.

This has been accomplished by redesigning the juvenile justice system in a way that provides accountability without criminalization, offering alternatives to justice system involvement, and providing an individualized approach based on youth’s risks and needs. New Hampshire has among the very lowest rates of juvenile incarceration and violent crime in the country.

Some youth still are court-ordered to detention at the Sununu Youth Services Center (SYSC), usually for very brief periods of time, to maintain community safety. In prior decades, their experience was highly punitive, resembling a jail or prison. SYSC today is a very different place; it is designed around a modern, humane, data-driven understanding of the factors underlying youth’s aggressive or illegal behavior, and the services needed to help them achieve positive outcomes.

Most of these young people have endured hardship in their young lives beyond comprehension. As their case files reveal, and brain science confirms, their challenging behaviors are largely rooted in the adversity, poverty, neglect, and abuse they have shouldered.

As the State, our job is to address their underlying issues and to ensure individuals, families, and communities are safe. We do this by engaging a team of clinicians and counselors to design and implement treatment plans for each detained or committed youth, to help them build skills in educational and recreational arenas, and to work collaboratively with community partners to wrap services around their families that promote long-term stability.

As we work to support more youth and families in community-based settings, we are faced with a question: what is the best way to care for the small but highly complex population of young people who require placement in a secure facility in the future?

Everyone agrees the current SYSC isn’t appropriate: a facility with 144 beds that typically houses 12 young people is neither therapeutically nor financially sound. The problem is that current law requires the State to shut down the facility in a matter of months without a plan in place to care for these children.

In the fall of 2021, DHHS provided a comprehensive plan for building on other reforms in juvenile justice by reimagining the role of detention as a place of last resort and first-rate care. This plan involves closing SYSC and replacing it with a small, home-like program dedicated to trauma-informed care and evidence-based practices.

This architecturally secure, therapeutically-oriented approach is situated within New Hampshire’s robust System of Care, incorporating the same standardized treatment assessments, community-based care coordination, and comprehensive services that are proven to improve lives. A bipartisan legislative committee assigned to study the options recommended adoption of DHHS’ plan.

Unfortunately, in the shuffle of the 2021-2022 legislative session, there was limited public awareness of this plan. During the Committee of Conference final sprint before the end of the legislative session, legislative negotiations broke down over the number of beds; opponents of the proposed policy solution were unwilling to support a facility with more than 12 beds.

We agree that the facility should be as small as necessary to meet the need. However, the proposal to limit the size of the facility to only 12 beds is inadequate to meet the needs of our youth and community. At times, New Hampshire needs up to 18 beds in order to safely care for youth who may require separate space based on their gender, clinical needs, or court orders (for example, requirements to separate youth involved in related criminal activity).

Establishing a size that is too small will pose a risk to the community and to the youth who are placed at the facility.

The delay in finding a solution has already had serious consequences. Facing a pending closure, uncertain future, and ample employment alternatives, one-third of staff have already resigned. Overtime demands have been extremely difficult. Recruitment is all but impossible.

Absent agreement, SYSC will close in March 2023 without any place to send the youth. We have contacted other states, that do not have space to accept them, no matter what we offer to pay. Current law will not allow county jails to care for these youth, nor is an adult correctional setting appropriate or safe. We need the Legislature to act. We need approval of the original DHHS plan to build a small but adequate therapeutic replacement.

New Hampshire is a national leader in its child protective and juvenile justice services. Failing to act on a responsible closure and replacement plan will put the well-being of some of our most vulnerable residents and families in jeopardy. Instead, let’s open the door to safe and stable outcomes for children and communities.

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