Editorials

Why does Missouri still prosecute all 17-year-old defendants as adults?

Bobby Bostic, who has already served slightly more than the 20 years and eight months that’s the mean prison term for murder in this country, deserves at least a chance to show that, as he writes, “I have rehabilitated myself.”
Bobby Bostic, who has already served slightly more than the 20 years and eight months that’s the mean prison term for murder in this country, deserves at least a chance to show that, as he writes, “I have rehabilitated myself.” Change.org/Bobby Bostic

During the last decade, Missouri lawmakers have repeatedly voted down a measure that would make 18 the age at which a criminal defendant is automatically tried as an adult, no matter what the crime.

In the new year, we hope they’ll take a new tack and rethink the current age, which at this point is 17 only in Missouri and four other states.

It’s inhumane as well as costly to mandate prosecution as an adult at that age, no matter what the circumstances, instead of doing that only when it’s warranted.

We’re also hopeful that the U.S. Supreme Court will decide in the coming months to take a juvenile justice case involving a Missouri man who was sentenced to 241 years behind bars for crimes he committed when he was 16.

You’re probably thinking that the man convicted in that 1995 case, Bobby Bostic, who is from St. Louis, must have killed someone to have been given several lifetimes behind bars.

But no, he did not, and he should never have been handed a prison term he couldn’t possibly outlive.

Instead, Bostic and an older man robbed three people at gunpoint, two of them as they distributed Christmas gifts to the poor.

One of their victims was grazed by a bullet, and Bostic was charged with 18 related crimes, including robbery, assault and kidnapping — that last one because the third victim, who was accosted half an hour after the first two, was forced into her car and robbed there, then let go.

At his 1997 sentencing, Bostic was told he’d be eligible for parole in 2091, when no one in the courtroom that day would still be alive.

Yet the adult charged in the same case was given a 30-year sentence, and when he has served 85 percent of that in a few years, will be getting out.

That disparity “is one [of] the greatest injustices in sentencing in modern times,” Bostic wrote in a letter to The Star.

Sadly, it’s not; on the contrary, it’s the kind of ill-considered and capricious sentencing that happens on a regular basis.

But it would seem to contradict the spirit of a 2010 Supreme Court ruling, in Graham v. Florida, that juveniles cannot be sentenced to life without parole for non-homicide crimes. That case involved a 16-year-old convicted of robbery and sentenced to life without parole after violating his probation.

The court found that life without parole for any crime short of homicide is unconstitutional because “the limited culpability of such offenders and the severity of these sentences all lead the court to conclude that the sentencing practice at issue is cruel and unusual.” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority that a “life without parole sentence improperly denies the juvenile offender a chance to demonstrate growth and maturity.”

Though Bostic was not technically given life without parole — and the court has not yet ruled on sentences so long that they amount to the same thing — the result is identical.

In 2012, the Supreme Court went further, and ruled in Miller v. Alabama that life without parole is “an unconstitutionally disproportionate punishment for children” even in a homicide case like the one in which Evan Miller was found guilty of beating a man to death with a baseball bat and then setting his trailer on fire. Miller was 14 at the time. In 2016’s Montgomery v. Louisiana, the court made the Miller decision retroactive.

There are some 80 prisoners in Missouri who were given life without parole as juveniles.

Last year, the legislature passed a law allowing them to ask the parole board for a hearing after spending 25 years behind bars.

And this summer, three Missouri inmates sued the state and said the parole board had not only denied 90 percent of the requests for such reviews, but also had made quick decisions at hearings held with a single board member that last as little as 15 minutes and tend to focus on the crime instead of on whether the inmate had made progress as a person.

Bostic, who has already served slightly more than the 20 years and eight months that’s the mean prison term for murder in this country, deserves at least a chance to show that, as he writes, “I have rehabilitated myself.”

It’s probably apt that he should put it that way since the state seems so disinclined to either rehabilitate or relinquish its long-term guests.

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