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Missouri prosecutors, courts not following new juvenile court law

St. Charles County case could force juvenile courts to deal with 17-year-olds whether or not they have the money to do so

ST. CHARLES COUNTY, Mo. — We shouldn’t even know his name — let alone the crimes he’s accused of committing.

That’s because Tyrell Jones is 17.

And, under a law that went into effect Jan. 1, he and others his age would have to be in Missouri’s juvenile system — where most of the charges against them are shielded from the sight of the public.

But prosecutors, public defenders and juvenile courts across the state disagree on whether the law has gone into effect.

The question is whether the state must first free up enough money to deal with the influx of 17-year-olds into juvenile court before it can start treating them as minors – something Governor Mike Parson said has not happened yet.

Now, Tyrell’s case could prove pivotal in a statewide battle the public defender’s office has waged to force juvenile courts and prosecutors to follow the new law, regardless of the silver.

To complicate matters, some counties treat 17-year-olds as minors, so their chances of being charged as adults depend on where they live.

In St. Charles County, District Attorney Tim Lohmar said he charged Tyrell as an adult because juvenile courts refused to take his case due to a lack of funding. He said the legislature must find the money to fix the problem.

“They gave us a real mess on our hands,” he said.

A successful system

In 1964, a neighbor accused Gérald Gault of having made an obscene phone call to him. He was 15 years old. An Arizona judge confined him to public school until he was 21.

Eventually, the United States Supreme Court ruled that minors deserved the same right to due process as adults.

The Gault case is often seen as the seminal case that shaped modern juvenile courts, “to hide youthful mistakes from public view and bury them in the graveyard of the forgotten past”, according to the Court’s opinion. supreme.

Children who fall into the juvenile system tend to do well, according to Sarah Johnson, Tyrell’s public defender.

She is also the Director of Juvenile Defense and Policy for the Missouri State Public Defender’s Office.

“Not only are their brains developing, but they have this amazing ability to readapt and learn from their mistakes,” she said.

The Missouri Division of Youth Services is nationally known for what is known as the Missouri Approach.

It is a system that keeps children close to home, reserves detention only for the most serious cases and allows for case-by-case considerations.

The most recent research showed that almost 73% of juveniles were not re-incarcerated or admitted to adult prison after three years.

Lawmakers recognized the research when they passed the Raise the Age Act in 2018, raising the age of those eligible for juvenile court to 17 and under.

In doing so, Missouri joined about 40 other states that already consider adults to be those 18 and older, including Illinois.

How much will it cost?

In a statement to 5 On Your Side, the governor of Missouri said the Raise the Age Act includes a provision requiring the law to be funded before it can go into effect.

“Full implementation of this law could cost tens of millions of dollars,” the statement said. “Governor’s staff have been in communication with legislators and stakeholders since the issue was brought to our attention, and we continue to work toward a resolution.

“The solution will probably require a statutory solution accompanied by adequate appropriations. What constitutes “sufficient” appropriation has not been defined by any court and there is no clear consensus among stakeholders.

But the state court administrator’s office provided an estimate.

The technical branch of the state court system investigated juvenile courts and estimated that adding 17-year-olds to juvenile cases statewide would cost approximately $13 million.

Johnson says at least $2.6 million is already available in the state’s Juvenile Justice Preservation Fund.

Parson’s office did not respond to questions about this fund.

Johnson also argues that the Raise the Age Act went into effect on January 1 — whether or not the money was there to pay for it — and that’s why the adult charges against Tyrell should be dismissed.

“The mere fact that they potentially face an adult sentence will follow them for the rest of their lives,” she said.

‘We were stuck’

St. Charles County Judge Terry Cundiff ruled against Johnson on Monday, so she is taking the case to the Missouri Court of Appeals.

If the court rules in his favor, juvenile courts and prosecutors would be forced to follow the new law, regardless of the money.

But a decision by the appeals court could take weeks or even months, Lohmar noted.

He estimates his office gets about 120 cases involving 17-year-olds like Tyrell referred to his office each year.

“I think in 2018 our legislature was right, 17 year olds should be treated like minors, but I’m stuck here and my job is to follow what I think is the law, I agree or not with this,” Lohmar said. “We’re forced to treat 17-year-olds like adults right now.”

The same can be said in St. Louis City, where an internal memo obtained by 5 On Your Side showed the juvenile police department commander told officers the law had changed, but “under the authority of Lt. Colonel Ronnie Robinson, until further notice, the SLMPD will continue to take offenders 17 and older to the Justice Center.

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner charged 17-year-old Eric Williams with first-degree murder, two counts of first-degree assault and five other felonies earlier this month.

Police have released his picture and name – although, like Tyrell, we shouldn’t yet know his name or the charges against him.

It’s a crime he probably would have been certified to stand trial for as an adult.

But he never had that chance.

Outliers

At least two prosecutors in the state’s biggest cases — St. Louis County and Jackson County — are refusing to charge 17-year-olds as adults, regardless of the money.

In St. Louis County, District Attorney Wesley Bell said his office is working with the juvenile justice system to ensure it can handle additional 17-year-olds.

He said that, based on previous years, his office charged about 50 17-year-olds as adults in an average year.

“It’s not something that’s going to affect our budget one way or another,” he said. “I made the decision to respect the law.

“We have worked with the juvenile court and the presiding judge of the juvenile courts and their team and they are also supporting it. So it is a collaborative effort to ensure that we treat children as children .”

If Johnson were to prevail in getting Tyrell into the juvenile system, his case could end up in St. Louis County.

This is because minors can be charged with a crime in the jurisdiction where it occurred or where they live.

Tyrell lives in St. Louis County.

But until then, he and others like him will remain charged as adults.

“The biggest impact is simply the fact that they potentially face an adult sentence, which will follow them for the rest of their lives,” Johnson said.

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