Date: January 22nd, 2024

To: Senator Tony Luetkemeyer, Chairman, and Members of the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Civil and Criminal Jurisprudence

From: Gwen Smith-Moore, Criminal Justice Policy Manager, Empower Missouri

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.

We are providing testimony today in support of SB 887, sponsored by Senator Barbara Washington, which would raise the minimum age of certification for juveniles charged with felonies from age 12 to age 14. Missouri law allows for children as young as 12 years old who are suspected of having committed a crime that is categorized as a felony offense to be tried as an adult at the discretion of the court and has no age floor for children suspected of dangerous felonies. We fully support creating a floor for dangerous felonies and are supportive of raising the age for all felonies to 16 or 18, although 14, as laid out in this bill, is an important start to the process.

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. 

Given all of that, logic would dictate that children under the age of 18 who break the law should be handled by the juvenile justice system– a court and detention program designed specifically for minors with a strong focus on rehabilitation. These programs are designed to provide wrap-around support for children and families who are often undergoing very difficult circumstances; these interventions seek to ensure that minors don’t end up trapped in a lifetime of encounters with the criminal legal system. 

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. 

If a child commits an offense classified as a felony by the state, we should assume that at least one of the following three things is true:

  • The child has been subjected to extraordinary circumstances that have resulted in a terrible tragedy.
  • The child has been the victim of abuse or neglect.
  • The child has been or should be diagnosed with a serious mental illness. 

In any of these situations, it is cruel and unusual to punish the child the same way that they would punish an adult. We must cherish and protect all of our children in Missouri.  This includes protecting children who are victims of terrible circumstances. For these reasons, we urge the committee to vote in support of SB 887.

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