Parents, advocates plea for changes in Missouri's juvenile justice system
JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri is one of only seven states in the nation that has not passed a bill to raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to 18, according to the Campaign for Youth Justice.
Jeree Thomas, an advocate for the group, flew in from Washington D.C. Thursday morning to attend a rally calling for that law to change, from 17 years old to 18. She said, as the law stands, juveniles don't get a fair break in the state.
"If they commit the exact same offense in Missouri, they’re treated as an adult. And as a result there’s a lot of negative collateral consequences that can affect a child’s life for the rest of their life," Thomas said.
Michael Dammerich knows those consequences firsthand. In 2011, at the age of 15, Dammerich was charged with first-degree assault and tried as an adult. He spent six months in an adult jail in Montgomery City before being placed in a juvenile program that eventually lead to his release. He is now a speaker for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and believes it's dangerous to send juveniles to adult jails.
“I mean the first thing I’d do is I’d ask people to understand that what we’re doing is saying that your 12-year-old daughter or 12-year-old son is eligible for prison," Dammerich said. "They’re not eligible for college at this point, they’re not eligible for a drivers license, they’re eligible for prison."
Mae Quinn, the director of the Macarthur Justice Center in St. Louis, said Missouri is not only neglecting juveniles, but also placing an "invisible" population of 17-year-olds in prison for mostly non-violent crimes. In Missouri, 17-year-olds are automatically tried as adults.
"Kids in high school, that have to deal with criminal charges for minor offenses, that would be much more appropriately dealed with in the juvenile system," Quinn said. "This has lifetime consequences."
Dammerich can relate. Even though he now attends Columbia College, he said he's still haunted by his past mistakes.
“I’ve had several job interviews where they’ve practically handed me the job, and once they’ve realized I had the [criminal] background that kind of threw it out the window entirely," Dammerich said.
Quinn said other states look down on Missouri for not changing these laws.
"Other states look at us and are really quite concerned about what's going on here. We have the Department of Justice looking at many of our institutions," Quinn said.
KOMU 8 News reached out to the Missouri Department of Corrections. It said it doesn't comment on pending legislation.
KOMU 8 also reached out to the state's Fraternal Order of Police, but they have not yet responded.
[Editor's note: This story has been updated the correct the current age of juvenile court jurisdiction.]