By Doug Ireland
---- — New Hampshire may soon join Massachusetts in raising the age — from 18 to 17 — at which criminal suspects can be treated as adults.
While many Granite State lawmakers back the change, members of law enforcement believe the state should continue to charge 17-year-olds as adults.
The House of Representatives recently voted 324-17 to grant preliminary approval to House Bill 525, which has been sent to the Finance Committee for further review. The Children and Family Law Committee voted unanimously in November to back the legislation.
The bill is sponsored by Rep. David Bickford, R-New Durham, who said he has opposed the current law since its inception in 1996. Several previous attempts to pass similar legislation have received support in the House but failed in the Senate, he said.
Bickford blames law enforcement, especially the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police, for failing to support past legislation. He said the association’s lobbying efforts led to the defeat of bills that could have helped rehabilitate young offenders.
“Mixing them in with adults doesn’t make sense,” Bickford said.
He said the approximately 30 17-year-olds incarcerated in New Hampshire jails should instead be held at Sununu Youth Services Center in Manchester. The center is only at half capacity, he said.
The state’s jails are already overcrowded and do not provide an environment conducive to rehabilitation, Bickford said. More must be done to help teenage offenders so they do no end up leading a life of crime as adults, he said.
Anyone who commits a serious crime, such as murder, would still be treated as an adult, Bickford said.
He said the state could face fines for violating federal law, including the Civil Rights of Incarcerated Persons Act, for not separating 17-year-olds and older inmates.
Rep. Debra DeSimone, R-Atkinson, a member of the Children and Family Committee, agrees 17-year-olds should not be incarcerated with adults because it could hinder their rehabilitation. They should be sent to the Sununu Youth Services Center instead of jail, she said.
“When you have an overcrowded jail, you have more of an instance that these 17-year-olds are with seasoned offenders,” DeSimone said. “They learn how to become better criminals.”
But some local police officials and the police chiefs association, including board member and Derry police Chief Edward Garone, said New Hampshire is best served by leaving the law alone.
Suspects who are 17 are responsible enough in most cases to know the difference between right and wrong, police officials said.
“We found things were going pretty well before (the bill was proposed),” Garone said.
Association president Patrick Sullivan agreed. They said their organization stands firmly against the legislation. Sullivan is the interim police chief in Goffstown.
“It has worked for the state of New Hampshire for the past several years,” Sullivan said. “There are no 17-year-olds in state prison. There are only 30 in the state that are incarcerated and for very serious crimes.”
Those crimes include armed robbery and attempted murder, he said.
Garone said the state needs a strict law to prevent Massachusetts teens from crossing into New Hampshire to commit crimes because they would receive less harsher punishment through the juvenile justice system.
“We were concerned that 17-year-olds were coming across the border and they were being treated differently,” he said.
New Hampshire lowered the age from 18 to 17 in 1996 after concern that criminals in Massachusetts were sending 17-year-olds to the Granite State to sell drugs, Bickford said.
Massachusetts later dropped the age to 17 as well but raised it to 18 last fall, Bickford said. New Hampshire is among only 10 states that treat 17-year-olds as adults, he said.
Pelham police Lt. Gary Fisher agreed the current law has been a deterrent.
“In my opinion, it should remain,” he said.
Londonderry Police Department prosecutor Kevin Coyle said changing the law would be a mistake.
“I think it’s a terrible idea,” he said. “I saw when it used to be 18 and 17-year-olds got into some major trouble. Whenever we had to treat them as juveniles, they likely got a slap on the wrist.
Coyle recalled a case in the mid-1990s when a 17-year-old and his 18-year-old companions beat and robbed a stranger, severely injuring the victim.
“It was pretty horrific,” he said. “The 17-year-old walked away and his co-defendants went to prison.”
Of the 17 lawmakers who voted against the bill, only two are from Southern New Hampshire. They are Rep. Mary Allen, R-Newton, and Rep. John Sytek, R-Salem.
Sytek said society is best served under the current law. As a bail commissioner and retired Salem High School teacher, Sytek said he’s familiar with the habits of criminals and teenagers.
He said he’s concerned about criminals crossing the state border to commit crimes.
“We will be a magnet for petty crimes,” Sytek said.
He said a one-year gap in age usually doesn’t make much of a difference when it involves someone committing a crime.
“These people know right from wrong,” he said. “They are a year away from voting.”