Guest Commentary

Passing ‘raise the age’ measure for juvenile offenders puts Missouri on right path

“Raise the age” legislation, which changes from 17 to 18 the age at which youth are automatically charged as adults, will benefit Missouri’s young people.
“Raise the age” legislation, which changes from 17 to 18 the age at which youth are automatically charged as adults, will benefit Missouri’s young people. Big Stock Photo

While there has been much focus, both in the state and nationally, on the status of Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, the General Assembly deserves its moment in the spotlight for supporting youth by passing “raise the age” legislation.

The near-unanimous passage this month of SB 793, the so-called “raise the age” bill — which changes from 17 to 18 the age at which youth are automatically charged as adults — will benefit the state’s young people. This is a good decision that is both obvious (better age-appropriate treatment, protection from the extreme dangers of incarceration with adults) and far-reaching (reduced recidivism, increased employment). It will bring with it long-term economic benefits for the state as a whole.

When the law goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2021, Missouri will join 45 states and Washington, D.C., that consider 18 the age of criminal responsibility.

Several other states have raised the age for juvenile sentencing in recent years (North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana and New York in just the last two). By joining this movement, Missouri will revitalize its reputation as a state dedicated to bettering public safety by supporting and rehabilitating young people.

Nationally, in youth justice circles, the state has been well known for its “Missouri Model” of juvenile incarceration. Before most other states, Missouri began closing its youth prisons and transitioning to smaller, closer to home residential treatment facilities, an approach that many other states have sought to emulate. But recently, Missouri was becoming increasingly known for its failure to raise the age — a situation the legislature has now voted to correct.

As Missouri focuses on implementing this shift over the next few years, it has a unique opportunity to once again become a model for youth justice. Once fully implemented, Missouri will in fact be one of just five states — California, Hawaii, Kansas and Tennessee are the others — in which no child is sent to the adult system without their case being heard by a judge with significant discretion to decide whether the child is transferred. There is one exception: In all five of these states, children previously tried as adults are automatically transferred to the adult system.

These system checks are critical in addressing the states’ disparate transfer rate of black and brown youth, but judicial review is just one piece of the puzzle. The three-year implementation process provides ample opportunity for Missouri to address the due process and equal protection violations that have plagued transfer hearings.

Three years ago, the U.S. Department of Justice found serious due process and equal protection violations in the St. Louis County Family Court, and an agreement on a path toward reform was reached at the end of 2016. Now is the perfect time to push forward on those reform efforts.

It is also the right time to address the issue of over-arresting and over-charging young people — particularly youth of color — in their schools and communities. This is contrary to what we know works for young people.

At its core, the premise of these juvenile sentencing initiatives is the idea that criminal prosecution is not an appropriate response to youthful delinquent behavior. Between now and the year 2021, Missouri should be dedicated to developing and implementing more appropriate community-based alternatives to arrest, which should be a last resort, but too often is a default first option.

The good news is that passage of “raise the age” legislation presents Missouri with the opportunity to renew the state’s focus on treating youth appropriately, not criminally. If the state enacts other reforms along these same lines — ensuring due process and equal protection in transfer hearings, reducing unnecessary arrests and resourcing community-based alternatives – Missouri will truly have re-established itself as an all-new model for youth justice.

Brian Evans is the national state campaigns director for the Campaign for Youth Justice.