CONCORD, N.H. — The New Hampshire House gave preliminary approval Thursday to replacing the state’s troubled youth detention center with a six-bed facility and further limiting which crimes could land children there.
The state currently spends $13 million a year to operate the 144-bed Sununu Youth Services Center in Manchester, although the typical population is currently about a dozen teens. Debate over its future began years ago, but has come to a boil amid horrific sexual abuse allegations.
The state budget passed last June mandated closing the center by March 2023. But the House on Thursday amended a Senate-passed bill that would extend the deadline, giving the state until June 30, 2024 to build a new facility, with the possibility of extending it for an additional two years if necessary.
The Senate version had called for a facility with up to 18 beds. The House cut that to six and added provisions restricting the crimes that would make children eligible for detention to violent crimes such as murder, assault, sexual assault, burglaries involving bodily harm and felony arson.
State Rep. Robert Lynn, R-Windham, unsuccessfully argued against those limits, saying that the threat of incarceration is sometimes needed to get teens to comply with lesser penalties and that incarceration is appropriate when someone repeatedly destroys property.
“This amendment sends the message that in New Hampshire, property rights don’t mean very much,” said Lynn, a former chief justice of the state Supreme Court.
The bill now goes to the House Finance Committee.
The youth center, named for former Gov. John H. Sununu, has been the target of a criminal investigation since 2019, and 11 former workers were arrested last April. Lawmakers also are considering a $100 million fund to settle claims brought by nearly 450 former residents who have sued the state with allegations involving more than 150 staffers from 1963 to 2018.
Story by Holly Ramer