Skip to main content

Missouri law raises age for adult charges, but some prosecutors say they won’t follow

This piece originally appeared on the Kansas City Star.

A new Missouri law raising the age at which teenagers can be charged as adults and sent to prison was supposed to take effect on Jan. 1 this year.

But across much of the state, the law isn’t being implemented and many courts are operating as if it was never passed.

The rollout of the law, which says 17-year-olds would no longer be automatically charged as adults, is being delayed because of a lack of funding, according to the Missouri Juvenile Justice Association.

In Jackson County and St. Louis, prosecutors have indicated they will go ahead with the change despite the funding question. But the statewide association for prosecutors has said it will not, leaving the state one of the last in the country to effectively make the change. Forty-five other states have already raised the age of prosecution to 18.

Sarah Owsley, the policy and organizing manager for Empower Missouri, a social justice organization, said it was frustrating that legislators passed the bill but now won’t fund the measure. She said she has not heard of any intention to fund it during this year’s session, which began Jan. 6.

“When these laws are left up to (prosecutor’s) offices to make a decision about whether or not they follow the law, that’s not a very efficient way. But it’s also not ... the will of the people or in this case of the legislature.

“This bill was passed through the legislature,” Owsley said. “That’s frustrating and disheartening.”

In 2017, Missouri sent 301 people who were 17 at the time of their crime to prison, according to the bill. Eighty-seven percent were for nonviolent offenses.

Criminal justice reform advocates say it’s unfair for youth to be tried as adults, pointing to studies that show neurological differences in teens that impact decision making. That research has influenced U.S. Supreme Court decisions on how youth are sentenced and incarcerated.

Advocates also point to wider racial disparities in the legal system that put Black youth especially at risk. In Jackson County, for instance, 95% of the minors charged and tried as adults are young people of color.

When the Missouri General Assembly passed the law in 2018 to raise the age of adult prosecution to 18, it tied the change to funding for increased caseloads in juvenile courts and youth programming staff. According to the bill’s fiscal note, that would cost about $7.8 million in the first year.

Since the law was passed, the General Assembly has not approved funding to implement it.

Last year, the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys co-signed a letter with the Missouri Juvenile Justice Association saying 17-year-olds will continue to be charged as adults.

“The Missouri Juvenile Justice Association, following a unanimous vote of their Board of Directors, has taken the position that the juvenile court WILL NOT have jurisdiction over 17-year-olds,” the letter said.

Dan Patterson, president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, is the prosecuting attorney in Greene County where Springfield, the state’s third-largest city, is located. Patterson said his office is not implementing the change.

The prosecutors’ association has filed a legal action in Cole County to clarify whether the law takes effect without the funding.

“Absent a legislative fix, the issue will likely have to be decided by the Court of Appeals and perhaps the Missouri Supreme Court,” Patterson said in an email.

Platte County also will continue to charge 17-year-olds as adults, said Prosecutor Eric Zahnd.

Zahnd said he helped formulate the position taken in the letter signed by the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys and the Missouri Juvenile Justice Association.

The prosecutor’s association supports raising the age as soon as it is practical, Zahnd said, but juvenile offices need additional funding for that to occur.

Marcia Hazelhorst, executive director of the Missouri Juvenile Justice Association, said she hopes they can find a resolution to the funding problem.

“We’re certainly looking forward to working with our legislators in this coming session,” she said.

The Campaign for Youth Justice, a national organization, helped get Missouri’s law passed. The campaign’s CEO, Marcy Mistrett, said the letter from the prosecutors and juvenile justice leaders did not trump state law, and that the juvenile justice association was actually working against the best interests of youth.

“[Hazelhorst] does not have any authority over what the law is,” Mistrett said. “They are refusing to implement it on time, but that doesn’t mean the bill is not going into law on time.”


Prosecutors in the state’s largest cities are going ahead with the change.

“We plan to raise the age to 18,” said Michael Mansur, a spokesman for the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office.

In St. Louis County, Prosecutor Wesley Bell, who was elected on a progressive platform in 2018, said he also will implement the change.

“We will abide by the law and send the appropriate cases to the juvenile courts,” Bell said in a statement in December. “We are aware of the funding concerns many have for the corresponding shift in caseloads and we share those same concerns. However, this law takes into account our core concerns and values, we believe children should be treated as children, and we intend to follow this new law.”

Rep. Nick Schroer, a St. Charles Republican, championed the legislation. He did not respond to emails and phone calls seeking comment in recent months.

Mistrett, with the Campaign for Youth Justice, said Missouri has had years to get the funding in place. According to the bill’s fiscal note, the money needed to implement the law would come from the state’s general fund in 2021.

Much of the money would be spent on adding juvenile officers as well as programs at the Division of Youth Services.

However Mistrett said estimates of the cost may be inflated because there would be savings in other areas. For instance, a youth diverted to the juvenile system may not go to state prison. The annual cost of incarceration is about $30,295 per person, according to the Missouri Department of Corrections.

Costs could also go down over time because teens in the juvenile system have better outcomes.

Youth in the juvenile justice system re-offend at a rate of 13.7% while in the adult system 42% of people leaving prisons will be re-incarcerated, according to the Raise the Age Missouri Coalition.

Raise the Age proponents say the long-term benefits of diverting 17-year-olds from prison to the juvenile system have been seen in other states.

Connecticut was one of the first states to make the change. In 2010, it began the process of diverting 16 and 17-year-olds to the juvenile system and focusing on rehabilitative services instead of detention.

As the youth who benefited from the change aged, the adult crime rate decreased. The state ended up saving millions by reallocating money to community-based approaches instead of custodial settings, according to a report by the Justice Policy Institute, a national nonprofit that advocates for criminal justice reform.

“You get these kids the services, get them back on track, they can actually get on about their lives,” Mistrett said.

Meanwhile, Missouri remains as one of five states that have not effectively raised the age for adult prosecution.

Michigan will implement their Raise the Age law in July while the remaining states — Georgia, Texas and Wisconsin — are expected to consider proposals during their 2021 legislative sessions.

Missouri lawmakers will develop the state’s budget during this year’s legislative session, which runs through May 14.

This piece originally appeared on the Kansas City Star.



Posted in JPI in the News

JPI's work

Through a combination of groundbreaking research, communications strategies and technical assistance, we inform advocates, policymakers and the media about fair and effective approaches to justice and community well-being.

Learn more »


We envision a society with safe, equitable and healthy communities; just and effective solutions to social problems; and the use of incarceration only as a last resort. Please help us end the #IncarcerationGeneration with a generous contribution.

Contribute »

Sign up for our newsletter