CONCORD — The House voted overwhelmingly last week to raise the age for determining when a juvenile is an adult in the criminal justice system, but the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police is fighting the change.
The bill would raise the age of minority for juvenile delinquency proceedings from 17 to 18. The House, after a 324-17 vote, sent the bill to its Finance Committee for review.
The proposal touts public safety and compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, as well as the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, as reasons to raise the age to 18 years old.
“It’s going to save the prisons a lot of money,” said Rep. David Bickford, R-New Durham, who sponsored the bill.
Bickford has sponsored similar bills a handful of times since 2000. Opponents said that the state law had only recently changed, back in the 1990s, to 17 years old to shadow Massachusetts law and address trends in youth crime. Bickford said the law was changed amid fear that gangs were creeping into the state, which he said did not materialize.
The numbers, however, speak for themselves, according to Kensington Police Chief Michael Sielicki, president of the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police.
“We feel it’s worked very well for us,” he said in a phone interview. “We see no need to change it.”
Bickford said the 17-year-olds in question would be better served at the Sununu Youth Services Center, where rehabilitative and detention services exist, rather than in adult prison populations. That way, he said, “it doesn’t destroy their life down the line.”
Sielicki sees it differently. If you take the worst offenders of 17-year-olds and place them at the Sununu Center, these “bad actors” will create additional problems for younger children there, he said.
The police chiefs worked with the legislative committee studying the issue last year. Among Sielicki’s concerns, he worries that the 17-year-olds in question would eat up resources dedicated to Children in Need of Services.
As with most everything in Concord, the financial implications have legislators talking. According to the fiscal note attached to the bill, as introduced in 2013, the change would increase state expenditures by $2.6 million in fiscal year 2014 and $5.2 million in 2015. That projection comes from the state Department of Health and Human Services’ Division for Children, Youth and Families and is based on what it cost to provide 266 16-year-olds various services, placements and programs in 2012.
In a House Children and Family Law Committee report to the House, Rep. Daniel Itse, R-Fremont, noted the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act and the Civil Rights of Incarcerated Persons Act require “sight and sound separation” of inmates under 18 from those 18 and older, which presents significant cost factors for the state.
Sielicki does not buy the argument that New Hampshire must raise the age to comply with the federal act to receive the funding.The New Hampshire Association of Counties supports the bill. The association cited similar cost concerns if the age of majority is not changed to 18, for counties to meet the federal compliance. The counties estimate that construction costs will be in the area of $3 million to $10 million to comply with the federal requirement to house inmates under 18 separately from the 18 and older population. Some county correctional facilities may not have room to expand and would need to contract out to house the younger inmates at another facility, according to the association.There are 20 to 30 17-year-olds at county jails on any given day, most of whom are awaiting trial, according to research presented to lawmakers.
Itse maintained in the report to the House that studies show a lower rate of recidivism when 17-year-olds remain in the juvenile system because they get appropriate services. When they are in the general prison population, Itse wrote that these 17-year-olds are “exposed to adult offenders who teach them more bad behavior.”
New Hampshire is one of 10 states that sets the maximum age for juvenile court jurisdiction at 16, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
As commanding as last week’s House vote was, Bickford knows from experience that the real hurdle remains the state Senate.