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"Raise the Age" Victory in New Hampshire: More Kids Treated as Kids

Posted in 2014, Across the Country, Campaigns Thursday, 21 August 2014

 By Guest Blogger, John DeJoie
NH Kids Count
NH CAN Coordinator/Policy Consultant 

Are 17 year olds really old enough to be sent to adult prisons? In NH, since 1995, the answer has been YES. Over the past decade, as states across the US have recognized that 17 year olds are still children, NH was unwilling to change. Since 2000, Representative David Bickford (R ) attempted to “Raise the Age” without much support, that is until this year. Following on the heels of a successful restoration of the CHINS (Children in Need of Service) statute and funding, the same group of advocates set their sights on modernizing the juvenile justice system in NH, including Raising the Age.
The NH Juvenile Justice Coalition, comprised of numerous advocacy organizations (child, mental health, legal and disability) began working to Raise the Age in the fall of 2013. It became clear that there were several areas of change needed. However, the coalition was unsure of the political environment for legislation and proceeded with caution. Conversations with leaders from both sides of the aisle about “raise the age” showed broad support for the concept, with some trepidation. The same tone was struck by state agency heads during similar discussions. The concerns centered on the cost of implementing changes and potential election year fall out.  The coalition emerged from these conversations understanding that efforts should address costs, be bipartisan and be “bold”.
The advocates decided that creating an omnibus juvenile justice reform bill held the best promise for success during the 2014 legislative session. This decision centered on the fact that an omnibus bill would present a needed system overhaul. Beginning with “Raise the Age”, the list included:
  •  Clarifying the right to counsel in juvenile parole hearings
  • Changing the waiver of counsel for juvenile proceedings
  • Clarifying competency determinations in juvenile proceedings
  • Requiring standards relative to the appointment and qualification of juvenile defense counsel
  • Directing the department of health and human services to collect certain data regarding the juvenile justice program

With a strategy and list of issues, advocates reached out to other key stakeholders in an attempt to enlist their support. Numerous groups worked with the coalition to provide input which made the legislation stronger including state agencies, county agencies and police. While all of these groups did not support the legislation, they all helped shape HB1624, AN ACT modernizing the juvenile justice system to ensure rehabilitation of juveniles and preservation of juvenile rights.  

Although various Representatives and Senators expressed interest in sponsoring the legislation, and since NH House limits sponsorship to five members it was important to choose key legislators. The final sponsor list included Representatives Mary Beth Walz (D) (Chair, Child & Family Law), Mary Jane Wallner (D) (Chair, Finance) and Jordan Ulery (R ) (member of the conservative House Alliance and Senators Molly Kelly(D) and Bob Odell(R ) (Chair, Ways and Means and Finance member).
Over the next six to eight months, coalition members gathered extensive research and held frequent meetings with Senators, key Representatives and Gubernatorial staff to share their findings. In addition to decreasing US crime statistics and especially juvenile crime, NH had seen a 50% decrease in juvenile charges between 2003 and 2008, with no available data after 2008. These data began to address cost concerns for legislators. 
During House Finance Committee hearings, legislators also began investigating the costs associated with instituting the new Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) regulations if 17 year olds remained in the adult system. The answers they received about the costs to state and county facilities made it clear that it would be more expensive to continue treating 17 year olds as adults. After receiving overwhelmingly positive votes at each phase of the House process, the bill moved to the Senate. In the end, with the combination of data, hard work, perseverance and a growing coalition, HB1624 passed the Senate and was signed into law by the Governor. 
HB1624 is one of the most important pieces of juvenile justice legislation in 
New Hampshire over the past 30 years. 
HB1624 specifics: 
  •           Raise the age of criminal majority from 17 to 18
    • This law becomes effective 7/1/2015 which was a strategic concession to avoid potential cost increases in the current state budget.
    • Prosecution may petition the court to remand the juvenile to adult court for felony charges.
  •          Right to counsel
    •  Juveniles must receive parole hearings not later than 6 months after commitment to the Division of Juvenile Justice Services and have the right to counsel at these proceedings.
  •          Waiver of counsel
    • Court may accept waivers when:
      • It is done voluntarily 
      • The juvenile is advised by a non-hostile parent or counsel 
      • The prosecution informs the court they are not seeking incarceration 
      • The charge is not a violent crime (as defined by statute)
  •          Clarifies competency determinations in juvenile proceedings 
    • Juveniles may be determined incompetent due to chronological immaturity, developmental disability, intellectual disability or mental illness.
    • Set strict time frames for determinations when juvenile is incarcerated 
    • Set required elements for the competency evaluation.
  •          Requires standards relative to the appointment and qualification of juvenile defense counsel 
    • Standards will be set by the NH Judicial Council
  •         Directs the department of health and human services to collect certain data regarding the juvenile justice program.