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Bill Would Raise Minimum Age of MO Juveniles Sent to Adult Prison

Forty-three states treat 17-year-olds as juveniles in the court system. (raisetheage.com)
Forty-three states treat 17-year-olds as juveniles in the court system. (raisetheage.com)
April 25, 2017

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Missouri is one of only seven states that treat 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal-justice system. A group called "Raise the Age Coalition" has been working to change that for several years, and members say they're encouraged because legislation to raise the age to 18 could be heard in a House committee within the next few days.

House Bill 274 would change Missouri law to say that only those 18 and older can be tried as an adult or sent to adult prison.

Vivian Murphy is the former director of the Missouri Juvenile Justice Association and says science has proved teenagers' brains still are developing, and putting them in with adult inmates does more harm than good.

"They don't belong in adult jails or prisons," she said. "They're more likely to commit suicide, they're more likely to be a victim of sexual assault, and many times they have to spend time in solitary confinement, which we know leads to physical and psychological harm."

Opponents of the legislation cite the cost, saying the state would have to open new juvenile facilities and hire more juvenile court officers. Murphy says Illinois recently used existing dollars after changing the age of juvenile offenders in that state to 17, and actually closed three costly youth facilities.

The House bill could be heard before the end of the legislative session. A similar bill in the Senate (SB 40) has been stuck in committee.

Murphy says it's about what's best for children, but it's also about community safety as well because there's more of an opportunity to turn their lives around if the focus is on rehabilitation rather than incarceration.

"Our juvenile-justice system holds kids accountable, and if the 17-year-old goes to an adult jail they're three times more likely to re-offend," she added. "And a lot of the 17-year-olds arrested in Missouri are arrested for nonviolent or misdemeanor offenses."

Murphy says more than 40 percent of the youth in the custody of Missouri's Division of Youth Services have committed low-level misdemeanors and juvenile offenses.

Veronica Carter, Public News Service - MO