EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

New Hampshire

January 21, 2014

Bill treats 17-year-old offenders as juveniles

Law enforcement critical of legislation

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.

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