JEFFERSON CITY • By most legal measures, 17-year-olds are not considered adults in Missouri.
But, while they cannot vote, purchase tobacco products or join the military, 17-year-olds can be tried as adults if they break the law.
Under proposals again being considered in the House and Senate, Missouri could someday join 43 other states that have raised the age to be prosecuted as a adult to 18.
Sen. Wayne Wallingford, R-Cape Girardeau, told a Senate panel Monday that the long-term effect of the change would be fewer people returning to prison.
“Adult jails are no place for teenagers,” said Wallingford, who is sponsoring the measure. “This is being smart on crime.”
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, keeping 17-year-olds in the juvenile system has been shown to reduce the chances that they will commit another crime by up to 34 percent.
Mary Chant, executive director the Missouri Coalition of Children’s Agencies, said youth facilities in the state are better equipped to deal with still-evolving brains of teenagers through programs and counseling.
“This gives the youth hope,” Chant said.
Rep. Nick Schroer, R-O’Fallon, is pushing similar legislation in the House. Last year, the measure won approval, but did not advance in the Senate.
There are financial concerns about making the switch, however. With Missouri already facing a tight budget year, juvenile court officials say they are worried the change will lead to an influx of offenders into the system that is already understaffed and faced with rising overtime costs.
Estimates show the switch could propel 287 new youth into the state’s juvenile system and trigger the need to spend an estimated $8.2 million on new facilities to house them.
Wallingford said he believes there is excess capacity in the Department of Social Services youth division to absorb the increase.
Supporters say the long-term benefits outweigh the short-term money worries because offenders who emerge from the juvenile system have more of a chance to become contributing members of society.
The legislation is Senate Bill 793.
Schroer’s legislation is House Bill 1255.
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