If two twelve-year-olds stood on their front lawn and pointed weapons at passing demonstrators, they would automatically face a hearing to determine if they should be prosecuted as adults, if charged, under legislation proposed by Missouri Governor Mike Parson.
No kidding. In the special session he has called on crime, Parson proposed toughening state laws on juvenile offenders that would, among other things, require that middle-schoolers who wave guns around like Mark and Patricia McCloskey face mandatory hearings over whether they should be prosecuted as adults.
On the bright side, this might not happen often: Most middle-schoolers behave better than the McCloskeys did when they infamously trained their firearms at peaceful protesters near their Central West End mansion on June 28. They made fools out of us in St. Louis, globally.
In that case, Parson also made a fool of himself by publicly offering the McCloskeys a pardon before they were even charged with a crime. That was so weird that no one got around to discussing whether it was even legal, which it shouldn’t be.
Ultimately, the McCloskeys were charged with unlawful use of a weapon, or UUW, and the governor went silent. But with apparently no sense of irony, Parson has now stepped forward to crack down on UUW for kids twelve to seventeen. Priceless.
It was a little-known fact — to most of us — that state law already makes it mandatory for courts to hold hearings on whether to prosecute children as adults for many serious offenses. These include murder, rape, sodomy, drug sales and robbery. Missouri is not soft on juvenile crime.
In the case of some lower-level felonies, such as UUW, the law allows for juveniles from twelve to seventeen to be certified for prosecution as adults, but it doesn’t require it. Parson, eager to feed red meat to the base in an election year, would pretend to tie the hands of judges even in some of these more minor cases, even though it would merely require the holding of a hearing, not the intended result.
UUW would trigger a mandatory certification proceeding. Bringing a gun into a library, a misdemeanor, would do the same. It couldn’t be more absurd, especially since the same judges already possess the discretion to proceed with what Parson wants to make mandatory. Conversely, if they don’t wish to do so, it’s not happening even if the governor gets his nonsense written into law.
Juvenile judges are more likely to act with reason than politicians when considering the case of a real-life kid whose life hangs in the balance. They’re looking the troubled young person in the eye. Politicians aren’t.
The juvenile court system is unlikely to embrace Parson’s rhetoric. It’s no accident that the number of children getting tried as adults has actually declined in Missouri, with only 42 kids prosecuted as adults in 2018.
St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell, among others, is not impressed with Parson’s show.
“There is no place for a twelve-year-old in adult court,” Bell tells me. “We know that even eighteen-year-olds have underdeveloped brains and a different level of culpability than adults. Twelve-year-olds are in sixth or seventh grade. What we should do for that child is nurture them and help them.
“What we should not do is throw them in adult jail or prison or saddle them with an adult record that will follow them for the rest of their lives,” Bell says. “If the governor wants to make this state less safe down the road, this bill is a way to do it.”
There is, however, an unexpected silver lining to Parson’s cloud. Try as he might to play the irrational tough guy in his made-for-TV-ad agenda, the governor likely would be thwarted by his own government.
It might come as a stunner to you that Missouri’s treatment of juvenile offenders is so good that it’s called the “Missouri model” by other states emulating it. Officials in this customarily backward state actually seem focused on finding long-term solutions rather than extracting short-term vengeance on kids gone astray.
One such front-line worker is Sarah Johnson, director of juvenile defense and policy and head of the children’s defense team in the state public defender’s office. Rather shockingly, Johnson says Missouri shines for its compassionate and effective approach to juvenile corrections.
“Missouri has for so long been lauded nationally for its juvenile program that it’s known as the Missouri model,” Johnson says. “Our Division of Youth Services has developed a program through which the system for juveniles consists of several small cottages across the state, rather than putting them in cells.
“It’s more of a dorm setting, not confinement with bars, where the kids receive accredited schooling, do gardening, play sports and are helped by mentoring programs,” Johnson says. “They also participate in peer programs, where they learn to rely upon each other. It’s a really good program.”
Johnson says Missouri’s system provides for “dual jurisdiction,” wherein even if a juvenile has been convicted as an adult, they still might serve their incarceration in the juvenile system. Hopefully, the Republicans’ next bright idea won’t be to change that.
Johnson notes that studies show conclusively that kids in adult jails are victimized by rapes and other assaults in disproportionate numbers and have little chance of emerging from custody with a crime-free life ahead of them. Sometimes their best case is sight-and-sound separation that’s tantamount to solitary confinement — not a great plan. We probably didn’t need a study to establish any of that.
Johnson’s perspective is up-close and personal.
“So many of the kids we see have been traumatized in their own homes and communities,” Johnson says. “Many of them, since a very young age, have witnessed gun violence on a very regular basis, seeing family members, friends and neighbors shot and often killed.
“Through the Missouri model, they can get juvenile-specific services, such as trauma services, counseling and therapy and education,” Johnson says. “In the juvenile system, if they’re given a second chance, if they’re given hope, social science tells us that they can grow out of these behaviors and go on to live better lives. But if we certify kids as adults, that hope piece is gone.”
Johnson says she knows firsthand how serious the crime problem is, and she says it’s a myth that juveniles automatically receive a free pass for their prior crimes once they hit seventeen or eighteen or 21. She says that serious crimes might be removed from public view, but they are not expunged and can remain relevant in the case of a juvenile offender who continues to commit crimes as an adult.
“Everyone knows we need to be serious about solving violent crime,” Johnson says. “But incarcerating children is not the answer.”
Talk like that isn’t going to win any votes this November. Parson, on the other hand, is likely to reap political benefits in direct relation to his public toughness on faceless juvenile offenders.
Johnson calls the governor’s effort “a step in the wrong direction,” but she does have one thing in common with Parson: Both are all about outcomes.
It’s just a question of whose.
Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or catch him on Donnybrook at 7 p.m. on Thursdays on the Nine Network and St. Louis In the Know With Ray Hartmann from 9 to 11 p.m. Monday thru Friday on KTRS (550 AM).