The Missouri legislature is seeking to pass some significant changes to our criminal justice system this session. In the months ahead, you are likely to hear some chatter about a renewed interest in “Raise the Age” legislation, so we wanted to provide you with a quick primer on the issue.
What are “Raise the Age” laws?
Each state has its own laws about the age at which an individual can begin being charged for criminal offenses as an adult rather than as a juvenile. 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. However, many states allow minors to be tried and incarcerated as adults. “Raise the Age” laws seek to address that fundamental miscarriage of justice.
What is the status of “Raise the Age” in Missouri?
In 2018, the Missouri legislature passed our first piece of “Raise the Age” legislation. This bill changed the standard age for which teenagers can be tried as an adult, raising it from 17 to 18 years old. Unfortunately, due to a technical error with the bill, it was not fully enacted until the legislature approved the additional funding for juvenile court and detention services in 2021. Before this bill was enacted, all 17-year-olds in Missouri were treated as adults by the criminal legal system.
However, 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. Empower Missouri is committed to passing a new piece of Raise the Age legislation that will ensure that 12, 13 and 14-year-olds can never be tried as adults.
Why should you care?
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 a felony, 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. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, there are 4,500 children incarcerated in adult facilities across the country on any given day. This puts children at enormous risk for physical or sexual assault, worsening mental health conditions, extreme trauma, and, at the very least, exposure to adults who could be a very negative influence on them. Some states “protect” children by requiring “sight and sound” separation from the adult populations, but in many facilities, that means solitary confinement. Solitary confinement is psychologically brutal for adults; it is mentally unbearable for children.
We must cherish and protect all of our children in Missouri. This includes protecting children who are victims of terrible circumstances. This session, Empower Missouri strongly supports the passage of SB 406, which would raise the minimum age at which children can be charged as adults from 12 to 15. Sign up for our weekly newsletter and follow us on social media to get notified when a hearing is scheduled for this bill.
If you’re interested in learning more on this topic, our February Friday Forum will explore more about these policies and how we can work to change them. Register now to join us on Friday, February 10th.