- Associated Press - Monday, August 17, 2015

MANCHESTER, N.H. (AP) - Lawmakers are considering expanding the state’s juvenile delinquents center in Manchester to provide substance abuse and mental health treatment for teenagers not sent there by the court system as part of an effort to better use the sprawling space.

A legislative working group tasked with finding ways to cut costs at the Sununu Youth Services Center toured the facility on Monday before discussing its future. The center has 144 beds and is the only secure facility for juvenile delinquents in the state. Just 44 beds are occupied, and the number of youth offenders in the state has been declining. In total, about 250 teenagers use some type of service at the center annually, operations director Penny Sampson said.

The legislative budget vetoed by Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan this year directed the center to cut its $28 million biannual budget by $5.1 million and come up with a transformation plan by November. Options on the table included closing, privatizing services or finding additional uses for the space.

The working group ruled out closing the facility and spent significant time discussing the possibility of using some of the campus as a mental health and substance abuse treatment space for teenagers who have not gone through the court system. Expanding those services likely would make the center eligible for federal Medicaid dollars, potentially leading to cost savings. State health officials are talking with the federal government about whether non-criminal youths can receive those services in the same location as juvenile delinquents.

“At the end of the day it’s about the kids,” said Republican Sen. Jeanie Forrester, chairwoman of the Senate Finance Committee. “We need to provide a facility that addresses the needs of this state.”

The committee hopes to come up with a plan for the center’s future by the fall and will hold another meeting in two weeks.

Sampson said she’s glad lawmakers realize the value in keeping the center open. The center is the state’s only secure facility for juvenile offenders, and the average stay for teenagers is about six months. While there, the juveniles have access to counseling, attend school year round and participate in group activities. The center relies on research-based therapy to ensure the highest quality of care, Sampson said.

“You’re always going to have youth who, due to their circumstances, may be a danger to themselves or a danger to others in the community,” Sampson said. “We’re uniquely qualified to take those kids.”

Republican Sen. Sharon Carson, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said she sees value in keeping the center open but wants better information about recidivism rates for teenagers who stay here.

“If we’re going to use these programs I want to make sure they’re working, that we’re seeing real, positive results,” she said.

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