CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — New Hampshire could solve two problems at once by replacing its youth detention center with two much smaller facilities and using the sprawling juvenile campus to house young adult inmates instead, a former state official told lawmakers this week.
Joe Diament, who served as commissioner of the Department of Youth and Development Services from 2001 to 2004, was among those offering advice Wednesday to a legislative committee exploring options for the Sununu Youth Services in Manchester. The two-year state budget Gov. Chris Sununu signed June 25 includes a mandate to close the center by March 2023.
The state currently spends about $13 million a year to operate the center, named for former Gov. John H. Sununu, father of the current governor. Though it once held upward of 200 youth, the typical population now is about a dozen teens.
Diament, whose 45-year career included work with the both the juvenile and adult prison systems, recommended two new six-bed facilities for youth, one in the northern part of the state and one further south. Moving young adult offenders to the Manchester facility, meanwhile, would help reduce crime by removing their ability to be influenced by older inmates.
“You have an ideal facility to take all the nonviolent youthful offenders out of the adult system and treat them at Sununu,” he said. “If you take the youthful offenders, 21 or 22, who are starting their career in criminality, not too dangerous ... and you put them in a prison with 30-, 40-, 50 year-olds who’ve been there 10 or 15 years or more, you’re increasing the risk of recidivism dramatically.”
Though Diament acknowledged the idea would likely face opposition from neighbors, the suggestion comes as a growing number of states are revaluating the effectiveness of traditional criminal justice responses for young adults.
According to a 2019 report by the National Conference of State Legislatures, adults ages 18 to 24 — particularly those with behavioral health needs — are overrepresented in the criminal justice system.
Some states or jurisdictions have responded by creating pre-arrest diversion programs and young adult courts, while others have created court proceedings and sentencing and correction options specifically for young adults, the organization said. Colorado, Florida, South Carolina and Virginia all require certain young offenders to serve their sentences in separate facilities designed for young adults.
Debate over the New Hampshire center’s future began years ago, but it has come to a head amid recent abuse allegations made by more than 350 men and women who say they were physically or sexually abused as children by 150 staffers at the state’s facility from 1960 to 2018. The state Division for Children, Youth and Families is cooperating with a broad criminal investigation launched in 2019, and 11 former workers have been arrested since April.