Sununu disbands juvenile justice advisory group to form new commission

By: - August 6, 2021 10:10 am
Scales of justice

Former governor Jeanne Shaheen established the Juvenile Justice Statewide Advisory Group via executive order in 1999. (Getty Images)

The news caught members of the longstanding Juvenile Justice Statewide Advisory Group by surprise. 

Gov. Chris Sununu announced Wednesday he had disbanded the group to start his own, saying it was time to “bring in fresh perspectives and ideas” as the state rethinks treatment for at-risk juveniles. He asked anyone interested in joining his new Juvenile Justice Reform Commission to submit a resume.

Sununu’s office declined to elaborate. Group members pointed to tensions between the group and its partner, the state Division for Children, Youth, and Families, namely over the use of federal grants.

“This was a conflict over who controls the funds, in my personal opinion,” said Joe Diament, a longtime advisory group member who previously served as head of the Youth Development Center, predecessor to the Sununu Youth Services Center, and as commissioner of community corrections with the state prison system. “He has every right to create a new commission if he wants to. The way it was done was ugly.” 

Jerry Gulezian of Londonderry, also a longtime group member, said there was no mention the group was being disbanded at its last meeting. “This is a blow. There were a lot of very good people,” he said. “Apparently some cannot handle a difference of opinion.”

Former governor Jeanne Shaheen established the advisory group via executive order in 1999, making the state eligible for federal grants. Members were charged with supervising the development of a state juvenile justice plan, distributing federal grants, and ensuring the state was complying with the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. The Division for Children, Youth, and Families was responsible for providing administrative support to the group and monitoring and evaluating its plan. 

Shaheen’s order gave the governor authority to appoint members and settle disputes between the two. Sununu and the state Department of Health and Human Services said a new understanding of juvenile justice required a new group.

In the last year especially, the state has invested in community-based support for at-risk youth. It is using federal pandemic relief money to boost funding for community mental health services and is closing the Sununu Youth Services Center in favor of supporting children in their own homes or community settings. 

Moira O’Neill, the state child advocate, did not comment on the membership or work of the disbanded group but said she supports Sununu’s desire to move the juvenile justice system from one long focused on criminal justice to one that prioritizes “upstream” supports that spare children and their families police and court involvement.

Kathleen Remillard, spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services, echoed that, saying, “As our knowledge around adolescent development evolves, our goal is to ensure that we continue to meet the needs of at-risk youth and the families that care for them, taking into consideration developmental needs of youth while ensuring accountability and community safety.” 

Remillard added, “The charge of the New Hampshire Juvenile Justice Reform Commission aligns well with the department’s work to ensure that children, youth, and families have access to the services and supports they need well before a time of crisis, and that we utilize data and evidence-based practices as we respond to the individual needs of at risk youth.”

Sununu said the new commission’s members will include people who work with juveniles in the court system, youth organizations, schools, and the current juvenile justice system, as well as mental health counselors. 

Members of the former advisory group were invited to submit their resumes. Rep. Cody Belanger, an Epping Republican who served on the advisory group, intends to. He was a co-sponsor of Senate Bill 94 this year, which allows the police, juvenile probation officers, and the Division for Children, Youth, and Families to divert a juvenile with mental health needs from the legal system to treatment. Belanger said his interest in juvenile justice reform outweighs the tension that led to the group’s end.

The advisory group “thought what they were doing was right,” he said. “DCYF thought what they were doing was right. What’s important is not getting distracted with our rifts and making sure the hard work is done.” 

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Annmarie Timmins
Annmarie Timmins

Senior reporter Annmarie Timmins is a New Hampshire native who covered state government, courts, and social justice issues for the Concord Monitor for 25 years. During her time with the Monitor, she won a Nieman Fellowship to study journalism and mental health courts at Harvard for a year. She has taught journalism at the University of New Hampshire and writing at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications. Email: [email protected]