CarriageTowneNews.com, Kingston, NH

March 20, 2014

Time to Change Law that Harms NH Kids


Carriage Towne News

---- — Time to Change Law that Harms NH Kids

In 1995, I was serving my 4th term in the Legislature when New Hampshire lowered the age of juvenile jurisdiction so that 17-year-olds, no matter how minor the charges against them, would be prosecuted as adults. Those of us who favored the change, including then-Governor Steve Merrill, the Attorney General, state corrections officials and local law enforcement, were motivated by a desire to make our communities safer.

I am now serving my 13th term as a state legislator, and while it sometimes seems that things don’t change that much at the statehouse, or in society as a whole, some things do. While I am still motivated by a desire to keep communities safe, I have realized that it is time to return 17-year-olds to the juvenile justice system and treat kids as kids. In 1995, treating 17-year-olds as adults seemed like sound policy, but two decades of new information, research and experience has changed my view on this issue. We should change the law and raise the age to 18 this year.

One reason is that the states around us have raised the age, so arguments we heard in the 1990’s that drug dealers from Massachusetts and other states would take advantage of our laws and send juveniles here to commit crimes are not valid. We are one of only ten states in the nation that still prosecute children under 18 in the adult system.

Another compelling reason is that we know a lot more about brain development than we did twenty years ago. Anyone who has raised teenagers knows that adolescents often have a limited capacity to think through the consequences of their actions. Teenagers are risk-takers and are highly susceptible to peer pressure. Neuroscience tells us that the human brain continues to develop into the mid-twenties, and the last area to reach maturity is the frontal cortex - the seat of judgment. So law breaking as an adolescent does not necessarily lead to a life of crime. Most kids will reform, under the right circumstances.

Research shows that young offenders who are handled in the juvenile justice system are less likely to repeat their crimes than those who go to the adult system. Adult prosecution also increases the likelihood that young offenders will escalate into violent crime. A 1996 study found that the recidivism rate went up 90 percent for kids who did time in adult facilities. The same study showed that processing in adult court increased by 80 percent the likelihood of being subsequently arrested for a weapons offense. Multiple studies in various states have shown similar results.

Something else that has changed measurably since 1995 is the prevalence of youth crime, which was a large part of the argument for lowering the age to 17. Both nationally and in New Hampshire, juvenile delinquency is on the decline. In 2003, the state processed 5,800 delinquency cases; by 2012, the number fell to 2,880, a drop of just over half. We have the capacity to add 17-year-olds to our juvenile justice system; and even with the addition of 17-year-olds, the juvenile justice system will still be smaller than it was in 2003.

The vast majority of offenses committed by people under 18 are misdemeanors, and if the age is raised, judges will still have the option of transferring any juvenile accused of a felony to adult court. Even 17-year-olds who receive long sentences will eventually be released. The younger the offender, the more important it is that our policies promote rehabilitation. Adult prosecution does the opposite.

I am a firm believer that young people should be held accountable, but it should be within the juvenile justice system where they’ll be mandated to go to school, have counseling and participate in other rehabilitative activities. We know that most adolescents who engage in delinquent acts do not persist in crime long into adulthood. The juvenile justice system capitalizes on adolescents’ capacity for rehabilitation, while the adult system diminishes it. Putting children in an adult prison gives them a new peer group – adult criminals - which exposes them to horrific danger.

Returning 17-year-olds to the juvenile system is the right thing to do, for our kids and for the safety of our communities. It’s time for New Hampshire to join forty other states and raise the age to 18.

Rep. Kenneth Weyler (R)

Representing the towns of Kingston and Hampstead