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Forum addresses issues confronting black youth

ST. LOUIS – Metropolitan Congregations United, a diverse group of faith and community organizers, held a public meeting at Vashon High School on Sunday, Nov. 3, to address several major issues concerning black youth in the area.

The primary issue of discussion was Missouri’s “Raise the Age”  legislation passed in June 2018, changing the age of adulthood to 18 from 17. The Juvenile Justice Task Force was key in 2018 in getting this legislation passed.   

“So raise the age, what is that?” Kristian Blackmon, the MCU Campaign for Youth Justice advocate, asked and answered. “It’s a law that actually won’t be put into effect until January 1, 2021. As of now though, currently, 17-year-olds are sent to the adult justice system no matter the offense.

“There are those 17-year-olds who do commit serious offenses and can still be treated as adults, but what Raise the Age is saying is that most 17-year-olds committing crimes are not violent, they are misdemeanors, but are still sent to adult jails. This is important because many, many 17-year-olds are subjected to physical and emotional abuse while they are in the adult prison system, and that is something we can start shifting today.” 

“A 17-year-old is not an adult in my eyes. A 17-year-old is still a youth and should have the opportunity to be able to shift the narrative,” Blackmon said.

According to the MCU, Missouri’s system of holding youth accountable is stuck in court processing.  In 2017, more than 30,000 referrals of youth were made, most of them by police and schools to juvenile court. More than 13,000 of these referrals were considered status offenses, meaning they would not be crimes if they were done by people 18 or older. MCU is asking St. Louis city and county juvenile court officials to agree to commit to a Raise the Age implementation working group, meeting within 45 days of the public meeting. The goal is to establish a process to begin acting now on Raise the Age. 

Rick Gaines, St. Louis County’s chief juvenile officer, agreed to commit to a working group. But he pointed out that the juvenile court could do nothing until the law took effect.

“In 2020, the juvenile court does not have jurisdiction over 17-year-olds. … Come 2021 when the law is actually effective, it becomes our jurisdiction, and at that point, I am willing to do what I can and commit on behalf of the people at St. Louis County.”

A skit put on by a youth group illustrated the real-life account of Kadijah Wilson, who got into a physical altercation at school and, because she was 17, was sent to adult jail for two months.

“They didn’t even call my mom,” Wilson said. “So I felt alone, and I was scared. As time went on, I felt I didn’t have a life. College wasn’t even in my plans anymore. When I got out, I had to catch up on two months’ worth of school work. I had to beg for my old job back to pay probation and court fees because certain jobs don’t hire felons. I was 17 years old, so I am here today to raise the age now.” 

According to MCU, in a 50-state comparison, Missouri schools make more referrals to law enforcement than 32 other states. MCU wants to build better pathways for young people.     

Although certifications as adults are down, MCU refers to the relative rate index, a data point used to identify racial disparities in the system. It shows that black teens are 5.7 times more likely to be certified to stand trial as adults than their white counterparts.

MCU further noted that while the large majority of referrals for law violations were Class A misdemeanors, such as shoplifting, and Missouri saw a 4 percent decrease in racial disparities in youth incarceration, black youth are still four times more likely to be referred to the juvenile court system. 

“I am a MCU leader because I am a mother,” said Cathy Rauch. “I know my children were not adults when they were 17 years old. They got into plenty of trouble, but they were/are white, and I know if they had not been white they might still be in jail to this day.”

Gaines said, “I have been with the county for 10 years, and it has always been my wish to help young people most impacted by the system, in particular, our African-American males. … The numbers are going down, but disparity is not going down.” 

St. Louis City Prosecutor Kim Gardner and St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell both agreed to participate in the Raise the Age implementation working group within 90 days of the public meeting. 

“Enthusiastically,” Bell added. 

Asked if they both also agreed to offer 17-year-olds with misdemeanor offenses divergent services instead of jail in 2020, Gardner responded, “We do that already, and we continue to strengthen our programs.”

“This is very complex and tough, especially for prosecutors like myself and Attorney Bell,” she said. “We are not over the juvenile system – I don’t know if you all know that or not. It is a court-run system, but we have to look at the root causes of this problem. We can always prosecute those who commit violent acts, and we do, but we also have to save young people who deal with homelessness; they have issues. We have to look at how we can heal communities and prevent the next most violent act. Alternatives are important.” 

Bell agreed with Garner.

“To echo Attorney Garner, that’s been a main focus of our platform to expand divergent programs and particularly with our young people, so absolutely. First and foremost, we have to treat children like children.” 

“Whether it be as a municipal court judge or a dog catcher, I’m going to focus on young people,” Bell said. “We want to make sure they have the wrap-around services they need. If they don’t have housing or decent livable wages, recidivism will shoot up for those individuals; and one thing about penitentiaries, they do not do a good job at rehabilitating people. With the work of our partners, we want to implement policy that will keep people out of jails.”

Another panelist, Wilford Pinkney Jr., director of children, youth and families for the Mayor Lyda Krewson’s office, said, “I’m excited about this opportunity. Children are important to me, our communities are important to me. I grew up in the projects in the Bronx, I’m from New York, so I know the challenges inner city youth face in these types of marginalized communities. I have only been in my position for four weeks, but I have done a lot of listening and I am committed to listening. The question I always ask is, ‘Are we reaching the right people?’ The mayor has made a commitment to increase funding for recreational programs, but it’s about all of us working together.”

Representatives for the Special School District and the St. Louis Public School District, with court officials, also agreed to investigate process and provide education services for 17-year-olds in city and county jails in 2020. Other key speakers gave testimonials, issued a call to action and encouraged offerings from the approximately 150 in audience attendance.

The other issue of grave concern for MCU is restoring the voting rights of 60,000 Missouri voters on probation or parole.

Demetrius Evans, currently employed at St. Louis County Courts as a youth leader, was asked to tell his story.

“I myself personally was an individual who was basically raised through St. Louis County Family Courts,” he said. He described a lifetime of misdemeanors and crimes, with years behind bars.  

“I had an early history of running into the courts at the age of 7 years old, and by age 10 I had been through the system 22 times,” he said. At age 15, he landed in an adult maximum security prison, was eventually released and committed another crime leading to another prison term. At age 32, he was freed. 

“I was asked to speak because it was found out I had never voted,” he said,  “because I had no faith in the system.” 

Missouri Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-5th Dist., explained: “Right now Missouri only allows for those individuals who are not on parole or probation to vote.”

“Most of those who come home are on probation for up to 15 years,” Nasheed noted. “Those individuals have paid their debt to society. Those individuals have had their second chance to go out and find a job and put food on the table, but they haven’t had that second chance to exercise their right to vote. That’s taxation without representation.

“I am here today to let you all know that I have already filed the bill to allow for parole and probation individuals to cast their ballots at the ballot box. This is not a black or a white issue, it is a human rights issue.” 

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