Special to The Washington Post

BOSTON—The kid was a domestic terror. He beat his younger brother. He shoved his single mother down the stairs, and he put his fist through the doors and walls of their rented house in Concord, N.H. Last fall at school, he assaulted a student.

By then he had turned 17, and because he lived in New Hampshire, he went to the adult county jail for two weeks before being released on probation. As a juvenile, he had received psychological counseling and medical treatment for attention deficit disorder. But now, as an adult in the eyes of the criminal system, he went home without any meaningful state supervision or rehabilitation.

“He gets the overkill of being with the adult population, and then he goes home with no accountability,” said Emily Hacker, a case manager with Child and Family Services, a private nonprofit agency under state contract. “It makes it really unhealthy for him, the family and the community. It makes the community unsafe.”

As Vincent Schiraldi, president of the Justice Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., put it, “It’s the worst of both worlds.”

Faced with a slew of young offenders in legal limbo, Granite State legislators are moving toward reversing a 1996 law and raising to 18 the age under which teenagers who commit crimes are automatically prosecuted as adults.

Legislation to treat 17-year-old delinquents as children again would make New Hampshire the first state in more than a decade to retreat from a national movement toward hardening justice for younger and younger offenders. It would also be the first state in years to revise the maximum age of juvenile court jurisdiction upward rather than down, taking teenagers out of the adult system.

The legislation recently passed the state House of Representatives; Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D) has said she will sign it if it clears the legislature.

Under the bill, anyone 17 and younger would be subject to juvenile justice penalties and be eligible for services, and, on their 17th birthday, 16-year-olds in the state’s juvenile correctional facility will not be forced out and barred from delinquency services.

Serious, violent and repeat offenders age 13 and older could still be tried as adults for certain crimes, pending a certification process. Juveniles also would remain eligible for the death penalty.

Child welfare and juvenile justice experts say it is particularly striking that New Hampshire is undertaking such a move at a time that two teenage boys await trial on charges of killing Dartmouth professors Half and Susanne Zantop. At the same time, juvenile crime rates are falling nationwide and scientific evidence indicates the adolescent brain is physically immature. Recent studies show young offenders in adult prisons are more likely to become repeat offenders than those who receive juvenile sanctions.

“It’s a harbinger of a revisitation of our juvenile justice system across the country,” said Ted Kirkpatrick, the director of Justiceworks, a research center at the University of New Hampshire. “If there aren’t other states doing this now, there will be.”

Opponents argue that New Hampshire’s juvenile justice system, which was recently reorganized and handled more than 4,300 delinquency cases last year, could not effectively handle the additional 600 or so 17-year-olds expected to return to the system, at an estimated annual cost of $660,000, if the bill becomes law.

Seventeen-year-olds should face stiffer consequences, they said, in open proceedings in which their identities can be made public.

“To introduce them to the adult system earlier is better than keeping them in a failing juvenile justice system longer,” Dover Police Chief William Fenniman said.

Proponents, however, contend that the legislation would remedy gaps in a legal system that bestows important privileges of maturity at 18. Seventeen-year-old offenders in New Hampshire are often dropouts and are too young to obtain good-paying jobs, sign a contract for an apartment or borrow money for a car. Nor can they easily access health services or legally apply for food stamps and local welfare, said state Rep. David A. Bickford (R), who cosponsored the bill.

The state’s juvenile division retains custody of juvenile delinquents only until 17, and adult homeless shelters, which do not accept minors, turn them away. Some have no place to go because the courts have ordered them to stay away from their victims, even if they are members of the family.

“We’re not talking about huge numbers. But the reality is that in a year, by virtue of my position, I make anywhere from five to 10 kids homeless,” said Joe Diament, director of the state Division for Juvenile Justice Services. “When they turn 17, they can no longer be in our juvenile correctional facility.”

Claire Ebel, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in New Hampshire, blamed the state for inadvertently creating a group of “throwaway children.”

“The young people who needed the help of the state most were turned loose with no assistance able to be given,” she said. “It is frightening for an adult. It is stupefying for a young person.”

In the early 1990s, New Hampshire, like many other states, was gripped by fears of teenage “superpredators” amid surging juvenile violence. But monsters failed to materialize, and the national juvenile murder arrest rate dropped 68 percent from 1993 through 1999, reaching its lowest level since 1966, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Nevertheless, prodded by public sentiment during that same period, legislatures in 49 states and the District of Columbia enacted laws that made juvenile justice systems more punitive and smoothed the way for juvenile offenders to be moved into the adult criminal justice system.

Three states — Connecticut, New York and North Carolina — require anyone 16 and older to be tried as an adult. Ten states, including Illinois, Massachusetts and Texas, set that age at 17, while the rest, including the District of Columbia, treat criminal offenders 18 and older as adults.

New Hampshire legislators lowered the age in 1996, after police determined that Massachusetts drug dealers were using 17-year-olds to do their dirty work across the border. Two crimes fueled support: Pamela Smart convinced her 15-year-old lover to kill her husband in 1990, and 14-year-old Jeffrey Dingman helped his 17-year-old brother kill their parents six years later. As important, politicians knew that the cost of putting teenagers in a juvenile facility and providing services was far more expensive — up to four times more costly these days — than locking them up in county jail.

Statistics are not available to show whether lowering the age to 17 has made a direct impact on juvenile crime, state officials said. But what is clear is that most 17-year-olds are not chronic or serious offenders, and they do not necessarily receive the harsh punishments or supervision that those who advocate trying them as adults might have in mind. Judge Edwin Kelly, who heads New Hampshire’s district courts, said hundreds of 17-year-olds passing through the adult system only get fines, when they could be receiving rehabilitative services. The percentage of youths younger than 18 who commit “horrible” crimes is very, very small, he said, and they are transferred into the adult system anyway.

The average 17-year-old delinquent considers adult court a joke, agreed Cynthia Herman, a community organizer for Child and Family Services. And some judges are reluctant to place teenagers in the company of hardened criminals.

“Adult courts can’t be bothered with dealing with dumb kid stuff. They get pled out, they get minor sanctions, a slap on their wrist and off they go again,” she said. “In the juvenile system, they would have caseworkers all over them. They would have been in the system, their families would have received counseling… . We’re not willing to write them off.”