Most county prosecutors in Missouri are not following a new law that raised the age for being charged as an adult in criminal cases from 17 to 18.
Prosecutors say they can’t implement the change because the Missouri Legislature did not provide funding for juvenile courts and services to handle an influx of new cases that would result from the law, which took effect Jan. 1.
The law was passed in 2018 , tied to funding for increased caseloads in juvenile courts and youth programming staff. The cost was estimated to be about $7.8 million in the first year, The Kansas City Star reported.
Most of the funding would be used to hire more juvenile officers and to add programs at the Division of Youth Services.
Prosecutors in Jackson County and St. Louis said they will implement the law. But the Missouri Juvenile Justice Association and the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys co-signed a letter last year saying 17-year-olds will continue to be charged as adults.
The prosecutors’ association has filed a legal action in Cole County to clarify whether the law takes effect without the funding.
Sarah Owsley, the policy and organizing manager for Empower Missouri, a social justice organization, said it she has not heard any indication the legislature plans to approve funding for the measure during this year’s session. She said it was frustrating the law is not being followed
“When these laws are left up to (prosecutor’s) offices to make a decision about whether or not they follow the law, that’s not a very efficient way. But it’s also not … the will of the people or in this case of the legislature,” she said.
In 2017, Missouri sent 301 people who were 17 at the time of their crimes to prison, with 87% for nonviolent offenses, according to the bill.
Criminal justice reform advocates say it’s unfair for young people to be tried as adults because neurological differences affect how teenagers make decisions. They also said Black youth are particularly at risk. In Jackson County, for instance, 95% of the minors charged and tried as adults are people of color.
Greene County Prosecutor Dan Patterson, president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, said the issue likely will have to be decided by the courts if lawmakers don’t provide funding.
Marcia Hazelhorst, executive director of the Missouri Juvenile Justice Association, said her organization hopes to work with legislators during this session to resolve the problem.
The Campaign for Youth Justice, a national organization, helped get Missouri’s law passed. The campaign’s CEO, Marcy Mistrett, said the letter from the prosecutors and juvenile justice leaders did not trump state law, and the juvenile justice association was working against the best interests of young people.
“(Hazelhorst) does not have any authority over what the law is,” Mistrett said. “They are refusing to implement it on time, but that doesn’t mean the bill is not going into law on time.”
Missouri is one of five states that have not effectively raised the age for adult prosecution.
Michigan will implement their Raise the Age law in July while the remaining states — Georgia, Texas and Wisconsin — are expected to consider proposals during their 2021 legislative sessions.