The surest way to turn a teenage delinquent into a lifelong criminal is to try him as an adult and incarcerate him with adults. That’s why Missouri passed a law in 2018, effective this year, to prevent 17-year-olds from being automatically charged as adults. It was a wise new policy that ran into trouble in the real world because it sought to direct a flood of new cases into the juvenile court system without providing funding to make it work.
Gov. Mike Parson’s move now to remedy that problem by seeking more than $18 million from the Legislature is the right one. Lawmakers must come through and finish the reform they started.
Psychologists have long recognized neurological differences between people in their teens and in their 20s as it relates to decision-making and criminal activity. People often make mistakes at age 17 that they wouldn’t necessarily make if they were a few years older. Then there’s the obvious fact that putting teens in the adult corrections system provides these wayward youths with exactly the wrong surroundings and role models — hardened criminals — at a time in their lives where it’s not too late to become productive citizens. Some reformers have appropriately dubbed it “crime school.”
Conversely, keeping 17-year-olds in the juvenile justice system reduces the chances of recidivism by as much as 34%, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s why Missouri has joined at least 45 states in moving away from the justice model that automatically tries 17-year-olds as adults. The Republican-sponsored law of 2018, passed with strong bipartisan support, left open the possibility of certifying defendants as adults at 17, but sets a default standard that those teens are to be tried in the juvenile system.
The law took effect in January of this year — on paper, at least. But because the state provided no money to implement the change, 41 of Missouri’s 45 judicial circuits has taken the position that the law isn’t actually in effect and have continued funneling 17-year-olds into the adult justice system rather than the juvenile system. The Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys is suing to get clarity on whether the law is actually in force without the money.
That litigation, and the continuing incarceration of teens in adult facilities, could be brought to a swift end if the Legislature simply does what it should have done before January, and fully funds the new law. Parson’s $18 million ask to fund 138 workers to start implementing the law as originally envisioned is valid and crucial. If it shuts down “crime school” and opens the possibility of getting some teens onto a different path while there’s still time, it will be money very well spent.