Date: January 17th, 2024
To: Chairman Luetkemeyer and Members, Senate Judiciary & Civil and Criminal Jurisprudence
From: Mallory Rusch, Executive Director at Empower Missouri
Re: SB 746
As the largest and oldest anti-poverty non-profit in our state, Empower Missouri is committed to improving the quality of life for all Missouri residents through advocacy. Since our inception, Empower Missouri has focused on the criminal justice system and its impacts. Our Community Justice Coalition consists of community advocates and organizations from across the state who work with those who have been impacted by the criminal justice system. Many coalition members are formerly incarcerated or have currently incarcerated loved ones, and all are connected by a vision for a future without mass incarceration.
Empower Missouri opposes SB 746 for three key reasons. First, Supreme Court legal precedent counsels against the extreme sentencing of youth, given a number of factors that I will expound on briefly below. Second, current law simply affords these individuals sentenced as children the right to a hearing from the parole board. The parole board can simply deny parole to individuals who are still deemed a danger to society. Third, denying parole to children currently serving long sentences for second degree murder would cost the state approximately $4 million.
In a line of precedent beginning with Roper v. Simmons—a case originating here in Missouri—the United States Supreme Court has cautioned against the extreme sentencing of youth, noting the developmental, environmental, and social characteristics of youth, each of which is transient and counsels against sentencing them to die in prison. In those cases (Roper v. Simmons, Graham v. Florida, Miller v. Alabama, Montgomery v. Louisiana), the Court noted three significant ways in which youth are categorically different than adults:
- they have a “lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility” as compared to adults that “often result in impetuous and ill-considered actions and decisions”;
- they are “more vulnerable or susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures, including peer pressure”; and
- “the character of a juvenile is not as well formed as that of an adult” and the “personality traits of juveniles are more transitory, less fixed.”
The Supreme Court has held each of these key differences mitigate youth’s culpability for committing even very serious crimes. The Court has also held that juvenile offenders “must be given the opportunity to show their crime did not reflect irreparable corruption; and, if it did not, their hope for some years of life outside prison walls must be restored.”
Missouri law allows for children of any age who are suspected of having committed a crime that is categorized as a dangerous felony offense to be tried as an adult at the discretion of the court. The general standard for being considered an adult in the United States is 18 years old. When you turn eighteen, you can begin voting in federal, state, and local elections. You are able to legally enter into contracts and other written agreements. You can be conscripted into military service, if we were ever to reenact the draft. You can begin to make your own medical decisions. Before you are 18, an adult– a parent, other relative, or court-appointed guardian– has legal custody and decision-making authority over you.
As a society, we have determined that children younger than 18 do not have the cognitive capacity to make their own decisions. This is why those under 18 are required to be under the legal supervision of an adult unless they have been specifically adjudicated to function as an adult by becoming an emancipated minor. There is a mountain of scientific evidence that says that human brains are not fully developed until the age of 25. Adolescents are more easily influenced by external factors than their adult counterparts, and their brains are still building the capacity for judgment, impulse control and long-term planning.
A charge of second degree murder indicates an unplanned killing, often occurring in the heat of the moment. Given that juveniles lack a strong capacity for judgment as well as impulse control, we have to give credence to these factors in determining if a decades-long sentence is actually an appropriate punishment. There are approximately 175 individuals in Missouri prisons who are currently serving long terms for second degree murders committed as teenagers. Please don’t remove the ability for the parole board to evaluate these cases on their individual merits to determine whether or not these individuals are worthy of a second chance. That decision will come at a high cost to these individuals, their families, and our taxpayers.