CONCORD, N.H. — New Hampshire is considering joining 40 other states and the federal government in treating 17-year-olds accused of crimes as juveniles instead of adults.
The House will vote on a bill next month that reverses a 1996 law that lowered the top juvenile delinquency age from 18 to 17.
State Rep. Dan Itse, a Fremont Republican, said the teens are still of an age when they can be rehabilitated if sent to the state reformatory instead of prison. He said the reformatory has empty beds for the young offenders.
Itse said the change also will help the state comply with federal laws requiring inmates under 18 to be separated from older inmates.
Goffstown Police Chief Pat Sullivan said police chiefs oppose the change.
“What we have is currently working,” Sullivan said.
He said law enforcement already is keeping 17-year-olds separated from older inmates in compliance with federal rules. Sullivan also argues that teens should know the difference between right and wrong by age 17.
“When we see crimes committed with weapons or an assault, there’s got to be a level of accountability. Citizens need to feel safe,” he said.
Raising the age would mean that crimes committed by 17-year-olds no longer would become part of an adult criminal record. Prosecutors would retain the right to ask a judge to certify a 17-year-old as an adult for major crimes. The Legislature has rejected attempts to raise the age in the past.
New Hampshire lowered the age from 18 in 1996 in response to arguments that criminals in Massachusetts were sending 17-year-olds into New Hampshire carrying drugs. If the Massachusetts teens were caught in New Hampshire, they were put through the juvenile system.
“We lowered our age to match theirs,” Itse said of the Massachusetts statute.
In the past decade, the national trend has been to increase the age and send 17-year-olds through the juvenile system, according to a report by the National Conference of State Legislatures titled “Trends in Juvenile Justice State Legislation 2001-2011.” Massachusetts is among the states to raise its age recently. Gov. Deval Patrick signed a law in September raising the age to 18.
Massachusetts’ law change removes the original motivating force behind New Hampshire’s 1996 law, said Itse.
Itse said 17-year-olds released from the state reformatory often have no place to go and aren’t old enough to rent an apartment.
“Basically we’re throwing these kids under the bridge and giving them no choice but to be a career criminal,” he said.
Itse said an amendment to the bill proposes to make the change effective July 1, 2015, to give lawmakers time to account for any costs associated with the population shift from the prison to reformatory.