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Juvenile justice: Treating minors as minors

March 28. 2014 11:59PM

Earlier this month the state House of Representatives voted 256-40 to approve House Bill 1624. It was a rare showing of strong bipartisan agreement, and for good reason. The bill would return New Hampshire to the common-sense practice of treating minors as minors in the state criminal justice system.

Under a state law passed in 1996 to go after drug mules from Massachusetts, New Hampshire classifies 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system. The change did not make us safer. Instead, it threw 17-year-olds, even those who had committed petty crimes, into the adult correctional system, erasing for many of them any hope of rehabilitation and emblazoning their youthful offenses on their permanent records to haunt them for the rest of their lives.

A dozen years ago, there seemed to be a good chance that New Hampshire would undo the 1996 overreach. This newspaper editorialized in favor of the change. We reprint that editorial below to encourage the Senate to follow the House's lead so New Hampshire can renew its effort to save, rather than cast away, juveniles who might have a shot at redeeming their lives:

At age 17, a New Hampshire resident who breaks the law must be treated as an adult. However, a 17-year-old who does not break the law cannot be treated as an adult. This may not sound like a big deal, but it is very serious to the older juveniles who get caught up in the state's legal system.

Imagine a 17-year-old kid who is a really bad seed. He beat up his father, got arrested, and was sent to prison for a short time. If the judge ordered him to stay away from his victim, then he would be unable to go home. What now? He can't rent an apartment or buy a home because he can't legally sign a contract, he's still a juvenile. If he has no relatives or friends he can live with, he's out on the street.

Granted, scenarios such as this do not happen often. But they do happen. And they expose the big flaw in the state's policy of mandating that all 17-year-olds be treated as adults by the criminal justice system. This policy became law in 1996. Prior to that, when it was being debated in the Legislature, this newspaper supported it. But since then the law has created some serious problems, and we now think it makes more sense to return the age of majority in criminal proceedings to 18.

In the juvenile justice system, offenders get treatment and are assigned caseworkers. Yes, we know that treatment has no effect on large numbers of juvenile offenders. Some people are, to use a politically incorrect word, evil. Their misdeeds are not caused by psychological problems and cannot be cured by psychological treatment. They should be locked away from the rest of society. But significant numbers of juvenile offenders are just lashing out. The task of the juvenile justice system is to separate these two categories of offenders and treat each accordingly. The state's current law requiring all 17-year-olds to be treated as adults can prohibit this sorting from taking place in some cases.

Earlier this month, the House passed a bill that would switch the mandatory age of adulthood for criminals back to 18. Gov. Jeanne Shaheen has said she would sign the bill. The Senate should pass it.

The bill would still allow juveniles who commit certain heinous acts to be tried as adults.

All it would do is return the state's presumption of adulthood from 17 to 18, where it belongs.

Crime, law and justice Politics Social issues Editorial

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