Right now the Missouri Legislature has a chance to get it right when considering how we handle children in the criminal justice system. The original version of HB 12 aimed to punish more of Missouri’s youth as adults. As chief of police and a frontline witness to child trauma, I learned that this will not stop crime, but it will increase crime. Incarcerating children in adult facilities increases the likelihood that they will re-offend when they are released. I am encouraged to see that the House has corrected course, amending HB 12 to prevent 12-year-olds from being tried as adults. The new HCS HB 12 will improve public safety by grounding our crime reduction strategy in recidivism data and youth brain science.
I witnessed the power of trauma when I led the sexual assault response team for the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department. I connected the dots between trauma and violence as a gang investigator for the city of Louisiana — I saw that many young gang members were hiding their own unresolved childhood trauma.
Adult prison is the worst place for us to send troubled youth. Studies have shown that juveniles in adult prison are five times more likely to experience assault and nine times more likely to commit suicide than those incarcerated in juvenile institutions.
Adult prison deepens the root issues that lead to violence. Adult prisons confront young people with abuse, isolation, and violence, preparing them to pass that trauma on to the community upon their return. They separate youth from positive influences and pressure them to join gangs for survival. As a result, youth incarcerated in adult facilities are more likely to re-offend upon release.
Two years ago, our legislators recognized that because 17-year-olds’ brains are still developing, they can make awful decisions under peer pressure, but they also have strong potential for rehabilitation. Both parties worked together to stop 17-year-olds from being automatically placed in adult facilities. Our state has also become known nationally for the “Missouri Model,” an approach to confronting youth trauma developed by institutions across the state.
I was troubled to see the initial version of HB 12 threaten to roll back this progress and send more youth into the adult system. By expanding mandatory juvenile certification hearings, that version would have put an additional 300 children on track for the adult system every year.
Fortunately, the amended version of HCS HB 12 is a step forward. New provisions raise the minimum age for adult certification from 12 to 16. This change will give us the chance to rehabilitate more youth.
We can also decrease crime by investing in local solutions that work. The CURE Violence program in St. Louis has just started putting trauma-informed community members on the ground to directly prevent shootings and acts of retaliation. In Chicago, a Northwestern University evaluation found that shootings dropped by over 40 percent in neighborhoods with CURE Violence programs.
Another clear opportunity is mental health. Any officer can tell you that mental health issues are everywhere, both in the community and among police. We need to invest in mental health support for community members and law enforcement alike.
I am encouraged to see Missouri recognizing that adult prison is the wrong place for youth. Instead of watching the old cycle of trauma, violence, and punishment continue, we are starting to look for ways to prevent crime before it occurs. I support the amended version of HCS HB 12 to invest in youth rehabilitation and ensure a better future for our communities.
Betty Frizzell served as Deputy Sheriff in the Lincoln and Ripley County Sheriff’s Departments and as Chief of the Winfield Police Department. Her book “If You Can’t Quit Cryin’, You Can’t Come Here No More: A Family’s Legacy of Poverty, Crime and Mental Illness in Rural America” will be released in March 2021. She is a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), a nonprofit group of police, judges, and prosecutors who support criminal justice solutions that will improve public safety.