Sununu Youth Services Center in Manchester

Under a proposed change, juveniles charged with misdemeanors would not be placed in settings like the Sununu Youth Services Center (SYSC), above. Instead they would go into a variety of other programs.

A major piece of justice reform legislation designed to keep juveniles charged with misdemeanors from being placed in secure corrections facilities cleared a key hurdle Tuesday.

Under the proposed change (HB 254), those juveniles would not be placed in settings like the Sununu Youth Services Center (SYSC). Instead they would go into a variety of other programs.

The House Finance Committee voted unanimously Tuesday to send the bill to the full House.

The state Division of Children, Youth and Families is developing a system of care network for juveniles that will include mobile crisis units across the state to help families with troubled youths and other alternative treatments.

Supporters view this measure as carrying out policy changes to pair with the planned closure of the large SYSC in Manchester. The Legislature has mandated the closure take place by March 1, 2023, though some legislative leaders and top state officials said that timeline may not be possible.

The legislation would eliminate many criminal misdemeanors such as simple assault, disorderly conduct and criminal threatening as offenses that would result in a juvenile being committed to the SYSC.

Those juvenile offenders under 18 would still be committed to SYSC, or its future replacement, if they committed a serious or violent crime.

As written, the removal of these criminal misdemeanors from this system would begin Jan. 1, 2023.

State Rep. Jess Edwards, R-Auburn, said he’s pleased the amended bill gives any judge the discretion to order the detention of any juvenile delinquent if the judge finds this would “protect the public from a substantial risk of serious bodily injury.”

This judicial discretion would take effect next Sept. 1 under this bill.

“This is going to succeed largely based on whether judges do their jobs confidently,” Edwards said. “Hopefully these programs line up and there are places where these troubled youths will go.”

Joseph Ribsam, director of DCYF, said the state has begun approving contracts for care management providers to coordinate services for juveniles.

Michael Skibbie, policy director with the Disabilities Rights Center, said many states have already changed their juvenile justice systems to focus more on treatment and less on incarceration.

“We unfortunately have a long-standing pattern of using very harsh consequences for very minor offenses in this state as compared to the rest of the country,” Skibbie said during a recent hearing.

Skibbie said many of these juveniles ended up at the SYSC only after other treatment programs failed.

“This is getting better in a fairly rapid state which is really good for our state and for the juveniles in our state,” Skibbie said.

Rep. Patrick Long, D-Manchester, said change is needed.

“I do believe this state is moving forward and we have the luxury of other states taking actions in these matters which resulted in better savings and services for their youth,” Long said in his own testimony.

According to state reporting, about 80 youths were committed to the SYSC in 2019 and about 70 last year.

Rep. Keith Erf, R-Weare, said the changes will reduce the numbers of those committed to as few as single digits a year.

“This gives HHS more time for handling these cases outside of secure detention,” Erf said.

On a 21-0 vote, the House Finance Committee approved this amended bill, which was left over from the 2021 legislative session.

The measure comes back to the full House for a vote early on in 2022.

The debate over closing the SYSC took on renewed urgency this year after allegations by more than 300 men and women who said they were physically or sexually abused by 150 staffers at the former Youth Development Center and the SYSC from 1960 to 2018.

The state has arrested 11 former workers since April.

Meanwhile, a study committee is recommending the Legislature move forward with creating a complex of up to 18 beds to replace the SYSC.

Opinions remain mixed on whether the new complex should be state-run or privately managed and where it should be located.

“We could debate this as a committee for another six months. It’s time for that debate to return to the Legislature,” Edwards said.