In Missouri’s courts, 17-year-olds will now be automatically treated as juveniles rather than adults if they’re taken into custody.
It’s the tenth state in the country to raise the age of criminal responsibility. Opponents of “raise the age” laws predicted it would increase juvenile caseloads and overwhelm capacity in youth detention centers. Still, the number of kids and teens in prison has gone down in many states who have had these laws for years.
Marcia Hazelhorst, executive director of the Missouri Juvenile Justice Association, hopes to see 17-year-olds in custody access programs such as job-readiness skills, life skills, and other services emerging adults might need to be successful. “The juvenile justice system has much better outcomes than the adult system,” Hazelhorst reported. “Because we are, we do have a rehabilitative system. And, we feel like young people are still developing; they’re forming their beliefs and their patterns of behavior, and so forth. And so they’re very amenable to treatment.”
The bill to raise the age passed in 2018, with a start date of January 1, 2021, subject to funding. All but five counties took the position there was not a specific line item for it in any appropriations bill, so the law didn’t go into full effect statewide until July 1.
Marcy Mistrett, senior fellow at The Sentencing Project and author of a report on the impact of raising the age of responsibility, pointed out in Missouri, Black youth are between three and four times more likely to be incarcerated than their white peers. “There’s great racial disparities in who we are seeing as adults, and if we know how to keep white kids out of secure detention and out of the adult system, there’s no reason we can’t apply that same meter to children of color,” Mistrett contended. She added advocates in several states are working to raise the age of criminal responsibility even higher than 18. For instance, it’s 19 in Vermont.
The report noted Georgia, Texas, and Wisconsin are the only remaining states to automatically treat 17-year-olds as adults when they’re arrested. It also recommended states and municipalities invest in community-based services rather than incarceration.