Missouri Could Recognize 17-Year-Olds as Juveniles, Joining 45 Other States

Missouri could raise the age for adult prosecution to eighteen. - COURTESY OF KATE TER HAAR
Missouri could raise the age for adult prosecution to eighteen.

Maybe a little slow to the idea, Missouri senators have nevertheless decided it might be a bad idea to prosecute seventeen-year-old shoplifters in the same system as full-grown killers.

The Senate voted 31-0 today to raise the legal age for adult status in criminal court cases to eighteen. The legislation — Senate Bill 793 — still has to go to the House and is not a done deal yet.

But it is looking like Missouri's lawmakers will probably pass it. Eighteen is already the law of the land for most of the U.S. The idea has taken a little longer to settle in here. Missouri, where 50 representatives recently voted against tougher child marriage laws, was one of just five states who still pushed young defendants out of juvenile court before they were old enough to vote.

If the bill does pass, a seventeen-year-old could still be charged as an adult for serious crimes. The difference is that a judge would have to approve certifying the teen as an adult — a system that is already in place for young defendants, starting at age twelve.

"Enacting this legislation would allow these young people to have access to education and rehabilitation while being protected from the kinds of assault and abuse that are too common in adult jails and prisons," Senator Wayne Wallingford, R-Cape Girardeau, wrote in January when he introduced the bill.

The Department of Corrections admitted 301 seventeen-year-olds in the 2017 fiscal year. Of those teens, 262 (87 percent) were charged with non-violent crimes.

The proposed age change is good news for those teens allowed to stay in the juvenile system, supporters say.

"This is the right policy step to take," Empower Missouri Executive Director Jeanette Mott Oxford said in a statement. "It will lead to better outcomes with these youths and lower costs for our state." 

Even if it passes, the legislation would not take effect until January 2021. Wallingford has said he wants the various agencies involved enough time to prepare for the change.

We welcome tips and feedback. Email the author at [email protected] or follow on Twitter at @DoyleMurphy.
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