JEFFERSON CITY – The Missouri Senate approved a bill Thursday that would increase the age that people are automatically tried as adults from 17 to 18.
The Senate voted 31-0 to send the measure to the House. Two senators were not present for the vote. Similar legislation was approved by a House committee last week.
Missouri is one of just five states that currently tries 17-year-olds in adult courts.
A similar proposal was approved by the House last year, but never made it through the Senate.
"When a child goes into the adult system, their parents are no longer involved," said the bill's sponsor, Republican Sen. Wayne Wallingford of Cape Girardeau. "That's just when the child needs their parents the most."
GOP Rep. Nick Schroer of O'Fallon is pushing the House proposal.
"I've seen what the juvenile justice system offered," Schroer said. "I've seen what the criminal justice system lacked."
Schroer said some senators he spoke with last year who were concerned that the change could be seen as "soft on crime" were mollified to learn that, in certain circumstances, juveniles could still be tried as adults. In the Senate bill, for example, children as young as 12 still can be tried in adult courts for crimes such as murder or rape.
Both lawmakers argued the move could save the state money in the long run by lowering adult prison populations, while simultaneously improving the chances younger offenders would be rehabilitated.
The principle concern is whether Missouri's juvenile system can successfully absorb the hundreds of 17-year-olds currently overseen by adult courts. From fiscal years 2015 to 2017, the Department of Corrections admitted almost 1,000 17-year-olds into adult prisons, according to a financial estimate of the Senate bill prepared by legislative researchers. The department placed more than 1,000 others on probation during the same time period. The vast majority were convicted for non-violent offenses.
By 2027, when the legislation would be fully implemented, legislative researchers estimate the change would cost the state about $10 million a year. That would be partly offset in the Senate bill by a new $3.50 fee charged to anyone filing a civil suit in Missouri. That fee, which would begin next year, could pump up to $1 million a year into a new juvenile justice fund, meaning the state could potentially save millions before the rest of the law took effect.
An analysis of the bill by the Department of Social Services concluded in December that the juvenile system has enough beds to potentially absorb new offenders. But it cautioned that smaller districts in the state might have a harder time finding space, especially in a facility that offered an "appropriate level of care" for specific teenagers.
Because of those uncertainties, the social services agency concluded that "it is difficult to quantify the costs that may be incurred."
The Senate bill now heads to the House. Schroer said he would support the Senate bill but hoped to eventually place an expiration date on the fee. The governor's office did not return a request for comment on whether or not the governor would sign the bill if it passed both chambers.