A bill to be heard in the state House committee today would prevent 17-year-old defendants from being tried for minor and non-violent offenses in adult courts.
Missouri Senate Bill 793 would require children under the age of 18 to be prosecuted in juvenile court for most criminal offenses unless the child is certified as an adult. The 17-year-olds charged with more serious and violent crimes could still be tried as adults.
The bill was approved unanimously in the Senate and will head to the House floor if the committee approves.
Several decades ago, most states routinely tried 17-year-olds as adults, but in recent decades a majority of those states have passed laws requiring courts to process 17-year-olds in juvenile court. Missouri is one of five states that has yet to do so.
“Most of those states changed their laws. Missouri lagged behind, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be fixed now,” said Josh Rovner of The Sentencing Project, an organization based in Washington, D.C., that advocates for justice system reform.
When minors are sentenced as adults, they end up with criminal records that juveniles in other states do not have, Rovner said.
"If two teens are both applying for a job, and they both get arrested for vandalism, at age 17, the kid from Missouri is going to have to check that box that says ‘I’ve been arrested,’” Rovner said.
The harsher sentencing practices can also disadvantage teenagers on college applications who would have to report criminal records that teens from other states don't, he said.
Teenagers processed through the adult criminal system are also far more prone to recidivism.
"if you're trying to get a teenager on a better path, then you really need to connect them with rehabilitation services and counseling and the juvenile system is much more equipped to offer those services than adults," Rovner said.
Juvenile crime rates have been on a steady decline since the mid-1990s, according to a report from the Office of Justice Programs in Washington. The current arrest rate for teens has fallen about 70 percent over a period of 20 years.
Missouri's own juvenile system handles less than half the number of offenders than it did a decade ago.
Rovner argues that the system would be equipped to handle 17-year-olds prosecuted as juveniles under the bill.
The bill's sponsor, Sen. Wayne Wallingford, did not respond to requests for interviews.
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