SPRINGFIELD, Mo — Missouri could soon raise the age of its juvenile court systems jurisdiction to include 17-year-olds.
The state is one of five that haven’t yet done so and this is not the first time this bill has been proposed.
“You suddenly don’t wake up on your 17th birthday more morally aware, more mature,” said Bill Prince, family court administrator and chief juvenile officer at the Greene County Juvenile Office.
But in Missouri once you turn 17, in the criminal justice system, you’re an adult.
“Whether it’s buying cigarettes, joining the military, entering into a contract, they have to be of a certain age which is 18, except for when it comes to our courts,” said State Representative Nick Schroer, (R) – O’Fallon.
The proposed legislation would change that and 17-year-olds would be referred to the juvenile justice system.
“The concept is a good concept,” said Prince.
The Greene County Juvenile Justice Center houses on average six to seven teens who stay about 10 to 12 days. In a year, Prince says about 1,9000 youth are referred to his office.
“Really only 100 of those kids got deep enough into the system that they actually saw a judge,” he said.
The other 1,800 he says, the juvenile justice center is able to work with them on an informal basis with services like anger management, individual and family counseling.
“To make sure that that youth’s first experience with our office is their last experience with our office,” said Prince.
He says his concern is if 17-year-olds are sent to the juvenile courts without enough funding, resources, and staff that the diversion system that’s currently working would be lost.
“We estimate that would add about 800 17-year-olds that would be referred to the office,” he said. “Then we become an office that processes kids rather than work with kids.”
State Rep. Schroer says the details of how much this would cost are still being worked out.
“Everybody can agree that it’s going to have huge cost savings in the long run, but when you look at the upfront costs, what and if any costs are going to be there, that is the big question that we have,” he said.
But Schroer says he is hopeful Missouri can learn from other states, save money and save youth a criminal record.
“It’s a good thing to do and the right thing to do, but it needs to be done the right way,” Prince said.
Under the proposal, 17-year-olds could still be shuffled into the adult court system depending on the crime.
The legislation is expected to be pre-filed in December.