Legislators consider proposals to raise age of adulthood in criminal cases

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JEFFERSON CITY - In Missouri, 17 year olds cannot vote in general elections, but they can be, and are, prosecuted as adults in criminal cases.

Now, state legislators are considering proposals to raise the age of adulthood for criminal prosecution to 18.

Missouri is one of seven states that prosecutes 17 year olds as adults in all criminal cases.

Several pieces of pending legislation, Senate Bill 40, House Bill 430 and House Bill 274, could change that.

The bills would bring most 17 year olds under juvenile jurisdiction. For the most serious offenses, 17 year olds could still be tried as adults.

Rep. Nick Schroer, R-O'Fallon, the sponsor of House Bill 274, said some detractors have raised questions about the potential costs of the bill, but the costs "don't take into consideration many other factors like lower recidivism rates and cost savings from that." So, the state could end up saving money instead. 

"When we look at other states that have implemented this, we've seen a surplus in their jobs market," Schroer said. 

The measures have bipartisan support, with organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Show-Me Institute expressing their backing of the bills.

Vivian Murphy, former director for the Missouri Juvenile Justice Association, said kids are less likely to commit a crime after going through the juvenile system than the adult criminal system. That could help save the state money in the long run. 

"What we found in other states is that the fear that the costs would be a lot are really overblown," Murphy said. 

Marcia Hazelhorst, the executive director for the Missouri Juvenile Justice Association, said fundamentally the legislation is a really good idea. However, Hazelhorst said if the bill passes, juvenile officers would need additional resources. 

"It takes a lot of time and effort from the juvenile officers and we want to make sure we can maintain it," Hazelhorst said. 

However, Murphy said juvenile crime and detention caseloads are down, so the addition of 17 year olds may not be as much of a strain as some fear. 

Schroer said the goal of these bills is to help give kids a second chance. 

"We've had many people saying to me that 'Look, I've made dumb decisions back when I was a youngster, and I'm glad that I was given a second chance,'" Schroer said.

Murphy said youths in the adult criminal system are more likely to be abused because they don't have the services they need. 

"The juvenile justice system holds kids accountable,” said Murphy. 

House Bill 274 is expected to be voted out of committee on Tuesday, April 4.