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May 06. 2014 6:13PM

Stephen E. Merrill : Treating 17-year-old offenders as adults makes NH less safe

A BILL that would hike the age from 17 to 18 before a young person could be generally prosecuted as an adult recently passed by an overwhelming majority in our state’s House of Representatives and will soon be voted upon in the state Senate. We applaud the House for its vote and urge the Senate to follow suit.

New Hampshire currently prosecutes 17-year olds as adults no matter how minor the criminal charges against them might be. As a result, many end up in our county houses of correction or worse. When New Hampshire lowered the age from 18 to 17 almost 20 years ago, its reasoning seemed sound. At that time Massachusetts prosecuted young people as adults who were 17 or older. It was felt by many that, because New Hampshire didn’t criminalize conduct of 17-year-old offenders from the Bay State, they might bring their offending activities here to take advantage of the more lenient treatment for those under 18.

Since we lowered the age for adult prosecution from 18 to 17 in 1996, however, Massachusetts raised its threshold age to 18. In fact, 40 states across the country have the same threshold as the Commonwealth before a young person (absent special circumstances) can be prosecuted as an adult in the criminal justice system. New Hampshire now finds itself in a small group of only 10 states with a lower threshold age. 

A large body of respected research shows that introducing teenagers to the adult criminal justice system only makes them more likely to reoffend than teenagers facing identical charges who are treated in the juvenile justice system. Indeed, research demonstrates that contact with the adult justice system increases the odds young offenders will graduate to more serious criminal conduct. The proposed law allows the courts ample discretion to transfer children accused of serious crimes to the adult system. The vast majority of law breaking by 17-year-olds is relatively low-level. So most would remain in juvenile court.

The principal purpose of the juvenile justice system is to rehabilitate young offenders through counseling, education and other services while shielding their identities to give them every opportunity to turn their lives around. Mixing young offenders with older ones in an atmosphere principally designed to punish often has the unintended consequence of providing the young offenders with experienced criminal mentors.

A strong, engaged family may well be the best buffer against criminal activity by young offenders. But because we currently treat 17-year-olds as adults under our criminal statutes, we are often depriving parents the opportunity to become involved when their kids need them most. Police have no obligation to call parents and inform them when a 17-year-old is arrested. A child can go through the entire police and court process without consulting a parent. That includes signing a plea agreement.

Once a young person has a criminal conviction, the stigma is most often permanent. These records are public for admissions officers and hiring managers to see. That is why young people charged as adults are more likely to commit future crimes. So many barriers stand between them and honest success.

The current scheme of prosecuting 17-year-olds as adults decreases the chances that these young people will go on to contribute to our common well-being as taxpaying members of the workforce. It increases the possibility that they will be a draw on our economy through ongoing incarceration or some form of public assistance. An extensive analysis done at Vanderbilt University in 1998 found that the net gain to society of getting a high-risk youth to avoid crime and finish high school was between $1.7 and $2.3 million over a lifetime. Adjusted for inflation, that’s $2.4 to $3.3 million. We cannot afford that financial burden. More importantly, we should not stand for this loss of human potential.

In our careers we’ve been proud to help keep New Hampshire a safe state boasting one of the lowest crime rates in the nation. Prosecuting 17-year-olds as adults does not keep us safer. It is time New Hampshire returned these kids to the juvenile system, where they can be held accountable for their actions and put on the path to being productive adults. Today, these kids need us. Tomorrow, New Hampshire will need them.

Stephen E. Merrill served as attorney general and governor of New Hampshire. He is of counsel at Bingham McCutchen LLP, and chairs Bingham Consulting. John T. Broderick Jr. is dean of the University of New Hampshire School of Law. He served on the New Hampshire Supreme Court for 15 years and was Chief Justice for six years.


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