State facing surge in juvenile detainees

Kurt Erickson
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

JEFFERSON CITY – Between the pandemic and its effect on policing and the judicial system, the number of juvenile inmates in Missouri youth detention facilities was nearly cut in half last year. 

But after three years of stops and starts in a law defining who is an adult and who is a child, the agency that oversees the state's treatment facilities for juvenile offenders is predicting a significant jump in the number of inmates coming into the system. 

According to the Missouri Department of Social Services, an influx of 17-year-old offenders could push the population in the state's youth treatment facilities past the 750 mark, up from the 366 reported at the end of June. 

At issue is a 2018 law known as "Raise the Age," which barred 17-year-olds from being automatically charged as adults in Missouri's court system. 

Supporters of the change say youths should not be tried as adults because of neurological differences in teens that affect their decision-making process. 

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says keeping 17-year-olds in the juvenile system has been shown to reduce the chances that they will commit another crime by up to 34%. 

In approving the law, Missouri joined at least 45 other states that have taken similar action. 

Missouri's system for treating juvenile offenders has won accolades for diverting young criminals from a future life of prison as adults. 

In the facilities, detainees don't just sit in cells. Rather, they are divided into teams and undergo group therapy and emotional self-examination. 

Until this year, escapes were relatively rare. 

Typically, the Division of Youth Services has seen one or two escapes per year, according to a tally provided by an agency spokeswoman. This year, however, at least 11 escapes have been reported.  

The rollout of the new law has been slowed by financial problems. 

The change affecting 17-year-olds was supposed to take effect Jan. 1, but prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges balked because no money was dedicated to funding it. 

At the time, all but five of Missouri's 46 judicial circuits had taken the position that the lack of money meant the juvenile court system should not take on 17-year-olds. 

Some prosecutors, such as the city of St. Louis and ones in St. Charles, Jefferson, Lincoln and Franklin counties, told the Post-Dispatch they would try 17-year-olds as adults until the funding issue was resolved. 

In March, Gov. Mike Parson asked lawmakers for $18 million to ensure the changes could be enacted. His request was approved and the court system began moving to stop treating 17-year-olds as adults when the budget went into effect July 1. 

At the time the original law was approved, a major concern was whether Missouri's juvenile system could 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 fiscal analysis of the legislation. The department placed more than 1,000 others on probation during the same time period. The vast majority were convicted for nonviolent offenses. 

Now, the department says not only can it absorb the new residents but also it will cost just $1.17 million and not create the need for additional frontline workers. 

Marcia Hazelhorst, executive director of the Missouri Juvenile Justice Association, said the estimates are in keeping with what supporters believed when the law passed in 2018. 

"I do recall that there was a projection that showed that there would be an influx of additional residents once the law was in place," Hazelhorst said. 

Although the department isn't requesting funds for additional staff, it is seeking money in the budget for a number of one-time purchases it says it will need with the additional juveniles in the facilities. 

Linens, for example, will cost $13,200. 

Beds, furniture and file cabinets for teachers will cost money. 

A bus to transport the additional juveniles is pegged at $260,000. 

Department of Social Services spokeswoman Heather Dolce said the agency is asking for the money to continue the implementation process. 

"At this time, the Division of Youth Services has not experienced a significant impact in youth commitments associated with this legislation but wants to remain ready to implement should that change," Dolce said. 

The decision to not ask for additional staff comes at a time when the department continues to grapple with a high turnover rate among its frontline workers. 

Like other state agencies, the low rate of pay for workers in demanding, social service jobs has resulted in nearly 50% of the employees who work with the juveniles leaving within a year. 

Nonetheless, the agency says it can handle the projected influx. 

"The pandemic and its impact on policing and court operations has reduced the number of commitments to DYS custody; therefore, any youth committed under the new law are able to be served with existing capacity at this time," budget documents say. "Post-pandemic, DYS would expect a significant increase in the number of commitments which will require the one-time funding to be used for start-up new residential and day treatment programs." 

The money for the expansion isn't secure yet. Parson will outline his spending blueprint for the state in January, and lawmakers are under a mid-May deadline to approve an overall budget.