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One last chance: Advocates for raising Missouri's criminal prosecution age make their case

This piece originally appeared in the Springfield News-Leader. 


One last chance for teenage wrongdoing.

That's what Brant Cunningham says could have helped his son in February 2015, when Lake Cunningham, as a 17-year-old, hurt somebody with a gun. 

According to court documents filed by a Polk County detective, Lake was holding a Ruger .357 when his stepmother and her friend arrived home, the detective reported.

Lake and his stepmother wrestled for control of the gun, and in the struggle, she was shot in the wrist, court documents say. While she bled, Lake called 911. Talking to the detective afterward, Lake said he was in "fight or flight mode" and thought "it was life or death."

He was found guilty of first-degree domestic assault and exhibiting a weapon, which are class A and class D felonies, respectively. He was sentenced to four years in prison on the latter count, and though he was given 10 years for the domestic assault, that sentence was suspended.

Brant Cunningham says his son has gotten in fights in prison, has spent time on suicide watch and has suffered post-traumatic stress "from Day 1."

"He didn't do too well," the elder Cunningham said. "I'm still trying to get him back."

Cunningham was one of four panelists Tuesday at an event organized by the Campaign for Youth Justice, a nonprofit advocating for changes to Missouri's juvenile justice system.

Specifically, the Campaign for Youth Justice is pushing for Missouri to stop automatically prosecuting hundreds of 17-year-olds as adults each year.

One panelist was Rep. Nick Schroer, R-O'Fallon, who has sponsored legislation to do just that. Schroer's bill would prevent children from being tried as adults or detained in adult jails unless they have been certified as an adult for the purpose of criminal prosecution.

Schroer, now an attorney and state lawmaker, characterized himself as a "knucklehead" who "got in fights daily" as a kid. He said his bill's provision for adult certification prevents "letting people off the hook," and his legislation would allow for several years for state and local officials to adjust to the change. 

One member of the audience in Missouri State University's Plaster Student Union was Bill Prince, Greene County's chief juvenile officer. Prince said he was in favor of the "raise the age" movement but noted that counties would bear the costs associated with the increased influx of juvenile offenders. 

Schroer said he didn't think his bill would act as an unfunded mandate for local governments. Though the most recent cost analysis for his bill says the state would spend about $9.2 million more in general revenue each year, Schroer also says he believes raising the age would save Missouri money in the long term.

This point of view was backed up by David Mitchell, an economics professor at MSU who has studied the "raise the age" question.

"'Raising the Age' of criminal responsibility to 18 would have up-front implementation costs, but in the long run, the net benefits outweigh the initial costs in the proposed legislation; making this policy change a net win to the state of Missouri," Mitchell wrote in a recent study.

Mitchell noted that 17-year-olds who are locked up are less likely to find a job after being released, and those who do work fewer hours compared to people who kept their noses clean. This matters to governments, which can't collect taxes from people who make no money.

"The net benefit of retaining 17-year-olds in the juvenile justice system, where they are more likely to generate future tax revenue, grows over time," Mitchell found. "Over the first ten years, the tax revenue would grow at a compound average annual rate of over 22% if the 17-year-old remains in the juvenile justice system in Missouri."

The time has come for Missouri to remove 17-year-olds from the "gladiator matches" that can take place in adult prisons, said Mae Quinn, executive director of the MacArthur Justice Center in St. Louis. This will require a "culture shift" among authority figures like police officers and teachers and a change in how we view, for example, 17-year-olds facing charges for misdemeanors like marijuana possession, Quinn said.

A report in March by the Justice Policy Institute, an anti-incarceration nonprofit, concludes that Missouri is ready for a bill like Schroer's.

"While Missouri has not yet raised the age, the state has been taking steps for a decade towards using more effective approaches that reduce young people's justice system involvement, enhance public safety, and will help the state manage the jurisdictional change," the report says. "... Since Missouri's juvenile justice system has already shown it can reallocate resources within the system to serve more youth in the community and keep costs in check, policymakers can take the next step towards having a more effective approach by raising the age."

There were no real opposition voices at the event.

Last session, Schroer's bill was opposed in committee by the Missouri Juvenile Justice Association and a representative of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys. Opponents pointed to concerns about cost and difficulties with adult certification of "teenagers who consciously and intentionally commit crimes."

This is not a "soft on crime thing," Mitchell said, but another way of treating teenagers who do "stupid stuff."

Brant Cunningham says Lake was one such teenager and added that his son had mental health issues and was on medication at the time of the shooting.

Court records indicate after being convicted of shooting his stepmother with a handgun, Lake has been on probation and also has spent time in a psychiatric facility. He recently secured a court order removing the requirement that he be held under lock and key, though he is still required to remain in a residential care facility.

"He can't function quite yet. He rolled quite a ways downhill," Brant Cunningham said. "He's got a ways to go to get back. But the system broke him before he went to jail."


This piece originally appeared in the Springfield News-Leader. 

 

Posted in JPI in the News

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