JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — A 17-year-old in Missouri can not vote, join the military, go on a school field trip without parental consent, or buy cigarettes or a lottery ticket. A 17-year-old is considered a minor until they commit even the most minor offense, then that teenager is charged, jailed, and imprisoned as an adult.
Sen. Wayne Wallingford and Rep. Nick Schroer are working to change that. Each has introduced, and not for the first time, legislation in their respective chambers that would raise the age of an adult in the criminal justice system to 18-years-old. Prosecutors could still try them as adults in certain circumstances, such as a repeat offender or serious crime.
Missouri is only one of five states — Georgia, Texas, Michigan and Wisconsin being the others — that haven’t already made this change. When Wallingford presented the bill in committee last year, Missouri was one of seven states. New York and North Carolina raised the age in 2017.
“I have three good reasons for this bill,” Wallingford said. “It saves our youth, it makes Missouri safer, and it saves the taxpayers money.”
With the therapy and rehabilitation offered in the juvenile system, it is the better place for youth, according to Wallingford.
Youth housed in adult jails are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than a youth in a juvenile detention, according to Raise the Age Missouri. 17-year-olds in adult prisons face more violence and sexual assault and can spend up to 23 hours per day in solitary confinement.
“The bulk of the benefits [to raising the age] will be seen in individual teenagers,” Emily Stahly, an analyst at the Show-Me Institute, said. “They will get a second chance to get their life back on track.”
In fiscal year 2017, the Missouri Department of Corrections admitted 301 offenders — 262 for nonviolent offenses — who were 17-years-old and received 382 — 361 nonviolent — for probation.
Including 17-year-olds in the juvenile court system has been shown to reduce reoffending by 34 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Adults leaving state prisons are three times more likely to reoffend than youth leaving juvenile facilities.
“It would make communities safer,” Stahly said, citing that juveniles are less likely to reoffend.
“Who can argue with saving our youth, making Missouri safer and saving taxpayer dollars?” Wallingford said. He is optimistic this is the year Missouri will make the change.
Supporters argue that it will save money in the long run. That treating 17-year-olds as minors could enable them to become productive members of society, removing them from prisons and the tax funded criminal justice system.
“Look at it as an investment to long terms saving,” Stahly said.
In the fiscal review, the DOC estimated a savings of $3,895,903 in 2027, after full implementation of the legislation, due to cost avoidance and reduction in the prison population requiring supervision.
But the cost would be shifted elsewhere.
The fiscal note attached to the Senate bill estimates, in 2027, $52,687 in costs to the Department of Social Services and $14,037,937 is costs to the Office of State Courts Administrator. Of OSCA’s cost, $10,187,476 is attributed reimbursing Single County Circuits for juvenile personnel, training and program costs — assuming state funding is appropriated for the reimbursement.
The County Commissioners Association of Missouri sees this as a potential cost shift to the counties, according Executive Director Dick Burke.
By expanding the number of Missourians counted as juveniles, it would increase the number of offenders in the juvenile system. This could require the the juvenile system to expand, and counties are responsible for a portion of the cost of the juvenile court system.
“We are opposed to any unfunded mandate,” Burke said.
The CCAM concern is strictly from a fiscal standpoint. If the General Assembly decides to make this change, “the legislature should make sure it is paid for.”
Alisha Shurr was a reporter for The Missouri Times and The Missouri Times Magazine. She joined The Missouri Times in January 2018 after working as a copy editor for her hometown newspaper in Southern Oregon. Alisha is a graduate of Kansas State University.