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N.H. Panel: Raise Juvenile Cap to Age 18

House Lawmakers Support Bill To Divert 17-Year-Olds from Jail

Concord — A House committee has unanimously backed a bill that would increase the age cap of juvenile offenders in New Hampshire to 18.

The committee on Children and Family Law voted, 15-0, last week to recommend the full chamber pass the bill when it comes before them Jan. 8.

The bill, HB525, would require 17-year-olds who commit crimes to be sent to a youth detention facility or diversion program, rather than county jails or state prison, as has been common practice for nearly two decades. Those affected could still be tried as adults in cases involving high-level crimes.

Proponents say the bill will give judges more sentencing options, thereby ensuring that nonviolent offenders on the brink of adulthood are punished appropriately. Chief sponsor Rep. David Bickford, R-New Durham, said low-level 17-year-old criminals are often punished with only a fine because the alternative for a judge is sending them to an adult facility.

“What I want is these kids to be accountable to a youth or diversion program, so that someone is watching them,” Bickford said. “Because this is a very tumultuous time in their lives, both boys and girls. I don’t think we gain anything by just fining them.”

New Hampshire once recognized 17-year-olds as minors in criminal cases but lowered the cap in the mid-1990s, following similar reforms in other states, including Massachusetts. The fear at the time was that a comparably higher limit would attract drug dealers to the state, on the incentive that they could turn older teens into drug mules.

That concern has all but disintegrated, supporters say, because only nine states still have a lower cap.

Opponents have argued the change could prove costly to implement, have negative consequences for younger offenders and add an unnecessary legal hurdle in cases involving serious and violent crimes. The current system, they say, is working.

But Bickford said the change makes sense.

“The idea that (17-year-olds) are old enough to know what they’re doing is ridiculous,” he said.

The state’s correctional facilities are on board, in large part because of a federal law that takes effect this year and requires prison and jail officials to separate inmates under 18 from older convicts. Adhering to the new standard would be unreasonably costly, they say.

Similar attempts to raise the cap have failed in recent years, the sticking point always falling on how expensive it will be to implement. Supporters hope the new federal regulation, which is cited in the newest draft of the bill, will sway lawmakers who were previously on the fence.

Juvenile justice officials have said they could accommodate roughly 60 more children at the state’s juvenile detention facility in Manchester.