We wrote recently of the opportunity to improve public safety in Missouri by “Raising the Age”—that is, keeping most 17-year olds out of the adult criminal justice system.
Part of the potential benefit is related to federal guidelines that require jailed and imprisoned youth under age 18 to be kept completely separate from the adult population. The guidelines, designed to prevent sexual and physical abuse of children, are expensive to comply with, and Raising the Age would reduce the number of youth who require this protection.
There are additional reasons to think that Raise the Age reforms would save money. Ninety-three percent of 17-year-olds arrested in Missouri are charged with nonviolent or misdemeanor offenses. In the current system they are charged, jailed, and imprisoned as adults. That is costly to taxpayers, and the Missouri Department of Corrections estimates that it would save $14 million each year if, as legislation now being considered in the Senate and the House proposes, most 17-year olds were prosecuted in juvenile court instead of the adult system.
The good news is that thanks to previous and largely successful reforms in Missouri’s juvenile criminal justice system, there are fewer children going through the system. In 2006, the Division of Youth Services (DYS) saw 1,214 commitments. In 2016, there were only 645—a reduction of nearly 50 percent.
But representatives of the Missouri Juvenile Justice Association (MJJA)—a trade association of “juvenile officers,” a class of court employee that works with youth in the juvenile justice system—testified against HB 274, a measure that would require that 17-year-olds be prosecuted under the juvenile justice system unless they have been certified as adults. The MJJA representatives claim the measure will increase workload, and they want passage to be contingent on more than $15 million in new spending for more juvenile officers. It’s natural to assume that an influx of new clients might justify hiring more officers, but consider two trends in Missouri’s juvenile justice population over the past decade or so:
- Total referrals to juvenile court are down 28% since 2004. (Source: Missouri Juvenile & Family Division 2015 Annual Report, page 10)
- Missouri already pays for over 20% more juvenile officers than it did in 2006, when nearly twice as many youth were arrested and passed through Missouri’s juvenile courts.
Raising the Age could be of great benefit to the children caught up in Missouri’s criminal justice system, and the opportunity to move them to the juvenile court system could also save taxpayers a lot of money. It would be unfortunate if this reform fell victim to state employees who demand more funding despite already having one-fifth more workers to handle just over half the cases they did 10 years ago. Where is the justice in that?