At the beginning of the year, a new Missouri law raising the age at which teenagers can be charged as adults for crimes, and thus sending them to adult prison facilities, was supposed to take effect — but across the state, many courts and prosecutors are acting as if the law was never passed and nothing has changed, The Kansas City Star reports.
The implementation of the law, which says 17-year-olds will no longer be automatically charged as adults after committing a crime, is being delayed because of a lack of funding, according to the Missouri Juvenile Justice Association.
To that end, advocates are “frustrated and disheartened,” arguing that “a law is a law” and a lack of funding shouldn’t freeze the initiative that has already been passed by the legislature.
“In Missouri, 17-year-olds can’t vote, serve on juries, join the military, or buy a lottery ticket,” Raise the Age MO, the state’s advocacy group, explains. “They aren’t treated like adults.”
They continue, saying, “There’s only one exception: Children are automatically charged, jailed, and imprisoned as adults the day they turn 17, even for the most minor offenses.”
To combat this injustice, the Missouri General Assembly passed the law in 2018 to raise the age of adult prosecution to 18, noting that additional funding would be required for the increased caseloads in juvenile courts and youth programming staff following the youth influx.
According to the bill’s fiscal note, it was estimated to cost about $7.8 million in the first year, Kansas City Star reports.
Despite the law’s passing and roughly three years to secure the funding, the General Assembly has yet to approve the money to implement the changes, resulting in prosecutors and jurisdictions going rogue and ignoring the new law.
Prosecutors in Greene County where Springfield, the state’s third-largest city, is located, prosecutors in Platte County, and attorneys following the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys and the Missouri Juvenile Justice Association will all continue to charge and try 17-year-olds like adults in 2021 — “until it is practical,” Kansas City Star explains.
The Campaign for Youth Justice, a national organization that helped get Missouri’s law passed, is frustrated with how the juvenile justice association is handling the events, saying that their prosecutors and juvenile justice leader’s opinions do “not trump state law.”
The campaign’s CEO, Marcy Mistrett, said, “[The Juvenile Justice Association] does not have any authority over what the law is,” as quoted by the Kansas City Star.
Not every prosecutor is ignoring the new law, as Michael Mansur, a spokesman for the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office said they plan to raise the age to 18. In St. Louis County, Prosecutor Wesley Bell, who was elected on a progressive platform in 2018, said he also will implement the change.
“We are aware of the funding concerns many have for the corresponding shift in caseloads and we share those same concerns,” Bell said in a statement in December, as quoted by the Kansas City Star. “However, this law takes into account our core concerns and values, we believe children should be treated as children, and we intend to follow this new law.”
Ultimately, based on the statistics from Raise the Age MO, the state is in desperate need to kick in this new legislation and allocate funding.
‘Vulnerable’ Missouri Children
Criminal justice reform advocates have long maintained that it’s “unfair” for youth to be tried as adults, citing studies that show “neurological differences in teens that impact decision making.” This research has even influenced the U.S. Supreme Court decisions on how youth are sentenced and incarcerated.
Advocates also point to wider racial disparities in the legal system that put Black youth particularly at greater risk for traumatization and a life entangled with the justice system. This is a sore point for Missouri residents, as in Jackson County, for instance, 95% of the minors charged and tried as criminal adults are young people of color.
Moreover, according to Raise the Age MO, people released from Missouri’s adult prisons are “three times more likely to reoffend and go back to prison” compared to the rates of the youth finishing juvenile sentences. In other words, the juvenile system is better equipped to treat, rehabilitate, and hold kids accountable than the adult facilities — which mentally damage and punish the undeserving minors.
Some advocates would argue that “undeserving” is an understatement, considering 93 percent of 17-year-olds arrested in Missouri in 2015 were accused of offenses that were not violent and didn’t involve weapons.
A 17-year-old entangled with the justice system also creates future barriers that are difficult to surmount, like stripping the youth of education, employment, housing, and military opportunities due to adult criminal records.
Other State’s Success with ‘Raise the Age’
Despite the fact that Missouri courts and prosecutors should be abiding by the new law, 45 other states have long been reaping the benefits of the “raise the age” implementations and improving public safety, saving taxpayer dollars, treating families fairly, and getting better lifelong outcomes for vulnerable young people, Raise the Age MO writes.
After the age of adult responsibility was raised from 16 to 18 in Connecticut, the youth offending rate dropped dramatically. Illinois saw similar results after the state raised its minimum age for misdemeanors committed by youth offenders. The move was so successful as a crime reduction strategy that the legislature has since raised the age for all youth-committed offenses.
In Mississippi, the juvenile jail and overall prison system population decreased after raise the age legislation was passed in 2010, proving that future mass incarceration can be curbed and cost to run facilities can be mitigated through these tactics, Raise the Age MO details.
In New York, after the Raise the Age legislation was successfully implemented in 2019, a report released by members of the Governor’s Raise the Age Implementation Task Force cited six months of large declines in youth arrests, arrangements, detention, and sentencing.
Michigan will join the list of states implementing their Raise the Age law in July while the remaining states — Georgia, Texas, and Wisconsin — are expected to consider proposals during their 2021 legislative sessions, Kansas City Star details.
Missouri lawmakers will develop the state’s budget during this year’s legislative session, which runs through May 14. Advocates are hopeful that their current disjointed prosecutorial system will be unified by the law again soon.
Additional Reading: Expand Youth Justice Reforms to Cover Young Adults, says NY Report