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February 07. 2013 10:33PM

Bill to classify 17-year-olds as juvenile offenders aired

CONCORD - The time has come to return 17-year-olds to the juvenile justice system where they can receive help, a House committee was told Thursday.

House Bill 525 would increase the age for the juvenile justice system from 17 to 18 years old, but not for more serious crimes, according to sponsor Rep. David Bickford, R-New Durham.

Bickford and others said including 17-year-olds in the adult criminal system does more harm than good, but law enforcement opposed the change, saying the current system works fine.

"This isn't about mollycoddling kids," Bickford said. "It's more about accountability, which is not there in the adult system."

At a time of extreme violence, he said, catching kids a little earlier might make a difference.

He and others said putting 17-year-olds in prisons with much older adults, many of whom have been inmates for years, will only make the 17-year-olds more likely to return to prison when they are released.

In the juvenile system, the 17-year-olds can participate in programs and classes, Bickford said, and have a better chance of succeeding when they are released.

However, Lt. Ron Mello, head of the juvenile division for the Manchester Police Department, said putting about 200 more 17-year-olds in the juvenile justice system will overwhelm it.

Over the last two years, about 200 17-year-olds a year have been arrested for crimes, he said. The juvenile justice system's services and program could not handle that influx.

The juvenile justice system also requires more hearings and that will hamper the police department and affect its budget as more officers will have to go to court to testify.

Mello was also concerned 17-year-olds may have a detrimental influence on younger kids in the juvenile system programs.

House Children and Family Law Committee Chairwoman Mary Beth Walz asked Mello if his chief concern was resources. He replied yes, but noted when he was one of the department's prosecutors, he did not see a lot of 17-year-olds go to prison.

"We certify maybe (one juvenile as an adult) a year," he told the committee.

The New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police also opposes the bill.

However, the state Judicial Council supports the bill.

The council's executive director, Christopher Keating, said three things have changed since the law was changed in 1995 to include 17-year-olds in the adult criminal system.

An adult conviction has more far-reaching affects on a person's ability to access housing, employment or join the military he said.

In 1995, it was fairly easy for someone to receive an annulment for a crime committed in his or her youth, but that is no longer true, Keating said.

He said the internet makes a person's past criminal convictions easy to find.

There have been several attempts since 1995 to return 17-year-olds to the juvenile justice system, but they have failed.

The state Department of Health and Human Services estimates the change could cost the state about $2.6 million in 2014 and $5.3 million in 2015 and every year after due to the added numbers in the juvenile system. Several people said they doubted the figures.

"There is a lot of room at the inn at the Sununu Youth Services Center," said Michael Skibbie of the Disability Rights Center.

"In every way, this makes sense," he told the committee, "for the public safety, for the children and for the rest of us."

The committee did not make an immediate recommendation on the bill.



grayno@unionleader.com

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