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Effort to stop charging 17-year-olds as adults stalls

Khadijah Wilson faced a bully during her junior year at Francis Howell North High School in St. Charles.

She told her principal and teachers about the name calling, and how the other girl constantly threatened to beat her up. But no one intervened. It went on for several months.

“I reported it more and more,” Wilson said, “knowing that it was getting worse.”

One day it got to be too much, she said, and she hit the girl. 

A police officer came to the school, put her in handcuffs and took to an adult jail — because she was 17. Under Missouri law at the time, 17-year-olds were immediately processed as adults, and she was charged with assault in the third degree. 

She spent three months in St. Charles County Corrections awaiting her court hearing, and sharing a room with adult women facing serious charges.

“I cried every night,” said Wilson, now 22. “I prayed, ‘God, please just take me out of here.’”

Khadijah Wilson speaks at Metropolitan Congregations United church, 4501 Westminster Place in the Central West End, on Nov. 3, 2019.

Wilson was among those who rejoiced in June 2018 when Missouri passed a law to stop automatically charging 17-year-olds as adults — joining 45 other states.

The law was supposed to go into effect on Jan. 1. 

But two weeks into the year, only two Missouri counties — St. Louis County and Jackson County — have started processing 17-year-olds through juvenile systems. 

The majority of Missouri prosecutors say the law is contingent on funding, and state legislators have not allocated the money necessary to pay for social services and other added costs that come with expanding the juvenile court system.

However, Missouri will soon have to abide by the federal legislation that also passed in 2018 that will require that youth held in adult jails — including those charged as adults — be removed to juvenile detention centers by Dec. 21. 

“It’s time to act now,” said Latrisha Gandy, an organizer with Metropolitan Congregations United, a group that advocated for the legislation.

Legal fight

The law makes two conflicting mandates that have left the courts and prosecutors confused.

It states: “Expanding services from 17 years of age to 18 years of age is a new service and shall not be effective until an appropriation sufficient to fund the expanded service is provided therefor.”

Rep. David Evans, R-West Plains

Rep. David EvansR-West Plains, who chairs the Missouri House’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Juvenile Justice, estimates that it would cost $10 million to $16 million a year to implement the law. 

However, the law also says 17-year-olds can no longer be detained in adult jails, unless they’re certified as adults. And the law mandates that 17-year-olds no longer be automatically treated as adults.

Any county putting a 17-year-old in adult jail could be violating the law, Evans said.

Over the last two years, prosecutors have not been able to get Missouri legislators to clean up the legislation, said Steve Sokoloff, general counsel for the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.

“The legislature had the opportunity to fix this over two sessions,” said Sokoloff, referring to the 2020 regular session and the special session on criminal justice in the fall. “The law is not very clear, and they didn’t do anything to rectify that and clarify that.”

Now, Sokoloff is representing Cole County Prosecuting Attorney Locke Thompson in a lawsuit that aims to convince the court to rule in the matter for prosecutors statewide. 

Thompson argues in the petition — filed on Dec. 23 — that legislators have not made the necessary budget appropriation to fund expanded juvenile services. 

The prosecutors association isn’t advocating for the law to be interpreted one way or the other, Sokoloff said. 

“It’s just a question of — tell us what it is so we can act accordingly,” he said. 

St. Louis and Jackson counties said they weren’t waiting for the court’s ruling or for funding. 

“We are ready to do it without funding from the governor’s office,” Rick Gaines, chief juvenile officer in St. Louis County, said at a rally on Dec. 10. “This is the right thing to do. Seventeen-year-olds are still kids, and we want to treat them like that.” 

Sokoloff said it was “really problematic” that the two largest counties in the state were moving ahead with the legislation, because it created inconsistency.

“If you are 17,” he said, “it shouldn’t depend on what county you’re in.”

In St. Louis city, Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner is concerned that implementing the law without funding could further harm one of the state’s most vulnerable populations.

“You are going to hurt these kids worse if you are putting them in a situations where there are no services,” Gardner said.  

She is interpreting the law the same way as the prosecutors association, she said, along with the Missouri Juvenile Justice Association.

“We have to follow the law,” Gardner said. “Right now there is no appropriation, and based on the language they wrote into this bill, it does not take effect until that appropriation is in place.”

Going forward

Evans, who was previously a juvenile court judge, said that the juvenile court system could prevent young people from a “bleak future” with the many services it provides.

Evans said he and Rep. Wayne Wallingford, R-Cape Girardeau, who sponsored the bill changing the law when he was serving in the Senate in 2018, have tried to get funding into the state budget but “couldn’t get it across the finish line.”

And budget cuts due to the pandemic made that task even more difficult in 2020, he said. 

This article by Rebecca Rivas is published by permission of the Missouri Independent.

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