Sununu convenes panel to tackle juvenile justice reforms

Gov. Chris Sununu has created a new commission to overhaul the state's juvenile justice system, which has been rocked by recent scandals.

The New Hampshire Juvenile Justice Reform Commission, which is required under a 2018 law, will act as an advisory panel to help the state rope in federal grants and recommend policies “aligning New Hampshire’s juvenile justice system with advances in scientific understanding of adolescent development and youth offenders.”

Sununu said the formation of the new panel will open up the state to federal grants and will help “create a juvenile justice system designed to meet the needs of the individuals, families, and communities in a safe, data driven, and evidence based manner.”

“Updating the State’s juvenile justice advisory group’s mission and membership will provide new resources to this important initiative and will help the Department’s work in revamping and retooling the system,” Sununu said in a statement.

Joe Ribsam, director of the state Division for Children, Youth and Families, said his agency is working to “transform the state’s juvenile justice system to be a more proactive one that identifies and addresses youths’ needs before at-risk youth become involved with the courts.”

The state's juvenile detention center – named for former Gov. John Sununu, father of the current governor – has been rocked by scandal over allegations, dating back decades, that former staff members physically and sexually abused more than 150 teens at the facility.

A criminal investigation, launched more than two years ago, is still underway. At least 11 suspects, many former staffers, have been arrested, according to the state.

Lawmakers recently approved a two-year state budget that calls for closing the facility in the next two years and replacing it with a new, 18-bed center.

The state spends about $13 million a year to operate the sprawling Sununu Youth Services Center, which is currently operating at only about 10% of its capacity.

In recent years, the state has focused more money and resources on child mental and behavioral health services as a way to reduce youth incarceration.

In a statement, the state DCYF says it plans to restructure the state's juvenile justice system in a way that “provides accountability without criminalization, offers alternatives to justice system involvement, provides an individualized approach based on the juveniles risks and needs, while ensuring the safety of the community.”

The new commission will include representatives from the juvenile justice system and courts, nonprofit groups that work with children and mental health providers.

Anyone interested in serving on the new panel can email a letter of interest and resume to [email protected].

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