JEFFERSON CITY — Just two years ago, Missouri lawmakers signed off on a plan to raise the age to be tried as an adult in court from 17 to 18 years old.
But now, as Gov. Mike Parson faces a potentially tough slog to the November election, he’s asking the General Assembly to reverse a part of that law as part of a “get tough on crime” push.
Under a package of legislation he’s asking lawmakers to approve in a special session dedicated to violent crime, Parson wants to give judges the ability to determine if a child between the ages of 12 and 18 should be tried as an adult for unlawful use of weapons and armed criminal action.
Police and prosecutors like the idea.
“When it comes to gun usage by youth, it has actually surged. We’re seeing youngsters that are carrying at a greater rate today,” St. Louis Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards told members of a Senate committee Tuesday.
The crime package also would modify child endangerment laws by including when a person aids or encourages a child younger than 17 to commit a weapons offense.
Another change would boost the penalty for a person who sells or delivers a firearm to a juvenile without the consent of a parent.
Stoddard County Prosecuting Attorney Russ Oliver said the changes will give prosecutors an additional tool to help crack down on kids being used by adults to commit crimes in hopes the youths receive lesser sentences if caught.
The provision is drawing fire from groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, public defenders and criminal defense attorneys.
Empower Missouri, a social justice organization, said that allowing youths to be tried as adults violates the spirit of the 2018 law.
“Juveniles do not belong in adult courts or prisons. Juveniles should be diverted to age-appropriate remedies, not to hearings on whether they will stand trial as adults,” said Empower Missouri Executive Director Jeanette Mott Oxford.
Springfield attorney Adam Woody said the change could result in a 12-year-old being sent to an adult lock-up.
“Armed criminal action is mandatory prison,” Woody told the committee.
The proposal comes as St. Louis has had at least 150 homicides this year, compared with about 110 at this point in 2019.
St. Louis police Chief John Hayden told the panel that over the past nine weeks, the city is averaging 10 murders per week.
Parson, who is a former county sheriff, is backing a number of other changes, including repealing the residency requirement for police department employees in St. Louis.
Although city voters are scheduled to be asked to weigh in on the residency requirement in the November election, Parson says the time to act is now.
St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson and police officials say the residency rule hurts recruiting and retention of officers. The department is down about 130 officers.
Under current law, police department employees in St. Louis must reside in the city for seven years before they are allowed to move.
The new law would remove that requirement and allow employees to live anywhere within a one-hour response time.
“We just don’t have the pool of folk that we can recruit from,” Edwards told committee members.
“We desperately need more officers and we need them now,” Hayden said.
Also in the package is a witness protection program that would establish a state fund overseen by the Department of Public Safety to pay for the security of witnesses and their families in the lead-up to a trial.
“It’s a game changer,” said Lisa Jones, program manager of the victim service division of the St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney’s office.