As the former director of the Missouri Juvenile Justice Association and a former juvenile officer, I have spent my life helping children in trouble with the law get back on the right track. That’s why I know it is so important for Missouri to raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to include 17-year-olds, and to do so this year.
Missouri is one of just seven remaining states that consider all 17-year-olds as criminally responsible adults, no matter how minor the offense. As someone who has spent my life in juvenile justice, it is dismaying to see Missouri — which has been a national leader in our treatment of youth in the juvenile justice system — fall so dramatically behind 43 other states on this issue.
Kids do not belong in the adult criminal justice system. It traumatizes them and puts them at grave risk of abuse and assault. It also denies youth with significant behavioral and/or mental health needs the rehabilitation and treatment that our state’s juvenile facilities are known for nationally. Instead of helping them become good citizens and productive taxpayers, we are abandoning our 17-year-olds to an adult system that produces higher recidivism, more crime and less public safety.
SB 40 and HB 274 will allow 17-year-olds to start in the juvenile system, though it will allow those charged with the most serious crimes to be certified as adults. Those who oppose this legislation agree it is the right thing to do for kids; their concerns have been focused on cost. A recent national report on the effect of such laws in other states demonstrates that fears about cost prior to implementation in every case turned out to be overblown.
The study, “Raising the Age: Shifting to Safer and More Effective Juvenile Justice System,” from the Washington, D.C.-based Justice Policy Institute, points out that in Illinois, the system managed the change with existing dollars, while also closing three costly youth facilities. In Connecticut, one estimation said juvenile justice costs could rise by $100 million, but instead the overall juvenile corrections budget remained fairly flat.
From my own experience, I believe this will be the case in Missouri as well.
Suggestions that Missouri will need new residential facilities at a cost of millions of dollars are unfounded. Over 40 percent of the youth in the custody of the Division of Youth Services are committed for low-level misdemeanors and juvenile offenses. By simply allowing more of these children to receive treatment in their communities, the system can open up enough space to handle the 17-year-olds who will be committed to them without building anything new.
Assertions that millions of dollars in funding for dozens of new juvenile officers will be needed are also off the mark. Crime, including juvenile crime, has been dropping steadily in Missouri, yet there are 20 percent more juvenile officers now than there were in 2009, when juvenile crime rates were twice what they are now.
The long-term benefits of raising the age — increased public safety; healthier, happier, better-educated children; and more productive taxpaying young adults — are incalculable. We know that in states that have already raised the age, juvenile crime rates have continued to fall.
Missouri’s Division of Youth Services is considered a national leader when it comes to the rehabilitation and treatment of youth. Let’s keep it that way! These are our kids and this is their time. Our legislature should pass raise-the-age legislation so that we can do what’s best for our children, our state and public safety.
Vivian Murphy is former head of Missouri Juvenile Justice Association and a former juvenile officer.