SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — Missouri is one of five states where 17-year-olds are automatically treated as adults in the criminal justice system, along with Georgia, Texas, Michigan and Wisconsin.
However, a recently introduced legislation aims at raising the age to 18 in the Show Me State.
A panel was held at Missouri State University Tuesday afternoon where a legislator, experts, and a father spoke in favor of this change.
Brant Cunningham is the father of a young man who was convicted of a felony when he was 17 years old. Cunningham was one of the panelists and says his son would have benefited from rehabilitation in the juvenile system.
“As an adult, you’re thrown to the wolves,” he said. “The juvenile system will take a better look at the kid.”
“Raise the Age” would keep 17-year-olds from going into the adult criminal system automatically. However, youth can still be transferred depending on the severity of the crime – including murder and rape.
If Missouri raises the age, roughly 339 additional 17-year-olds would be transferred from the adult to the juvenile system and, according to the Missouri Fiscal Note, that would cost the state $6.7 million a year.
But Dr. David Mitchell, an economics professor and director of the Bureau of Economic Research at MSU, says it will cost much less.
“Our analysis show that’s incorrect because people are in prison longer than [the state] says they’re in prison,” he said.
Dr. Mitchell’s study estimates it will cost around $3.4 million. An initial cost he says will be offset by the long-term benefits of sending 17-year-olds to a juvenile facility instead of the adult criminal system.
“If you think of this in terms of what’s this going to cost year after year, after year, then it’s going to save more. It’s an investment,” Dr. Mitchell said.
The study says juveniles who are transferred into the adult system receive longer sentences than in Juvy and are more likely to re-offend once released. The study says youth coming out of Juvy have a greater chance at becoming productive members of society.
“They’re more likely to get a job. They’re more likely to keep that job. They’ll earn more in lifetime wages. They’ll pay more in lifetime taxes,” he said.
According to the study, by raising the age, the taxpayer is still paying for housing, food, medical care for a 17-year-old in a juvenile facility or in the adult system. The only difference is which department is overseeing that youth.
“You’re paying the money no matter what, so you might as well pay it as ‘here’s a second chance’,” Dr. Mitchell said.
Bill Prince with the Greene County Juvenile Justice Center says in theory raising the age is a good idea.
“Nothing magical happens when you turn seventeen,” he said.
Right now, the Greene County Juvenile Center receives about 2,000 referrals per year. Of those, Prince says only about 100 youth actually step foot in a courtroom.
If the legislation passes, Prince says that would mean 40 percent more referrals just in Greene County – a total of 700 new cases per year. And that new wave of cases is what concerns him about raising the age.
“We emphasize on diversion and working with the family,” he said. “We want to make sure that if we get an increasing population of 17-year-olds that we have the appropriate resources for not only the youth we already have, but for the new population.”
The Raise The Age legislation in Missouri is HB 1255. It was just pre-filed on Dec. 1 and a hearing hasn’t yet been scheduled. It’s sponsored by Rep. Nick Shroer.