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St. Louis faith leaders push for changes in Missouri juvenile sentencing guidelines

Seventeen-year-old offenders automatically are prosecuted as adults in Missouri. A group of faith leaders is trying to change that and give prosecutors discretion in filing charges against juvenile suspects, according to KSDK-TV.

“We have to treat children like children,” Wesley Bell, the St. Louis County prosecutor, said at a Metropolitan Congregations United (MCU) public meeting on Sunday.

As crime rates increase, especially in Missouri’s largest cities of Kansas City, St. Louis, Columbia and Springfield, correctional facilities are filling up with young offenders.

A move to raise the mandatory adult prosecuting age from 17 to 18 passed the Missouri Legislature last year, but MCU is concerned that the change won’t go into place until 2021.

“I don’t want to hear another story like mine or worse, we are here today to raise the age,” said Khadijah Wilson, a speaker at the event.

Other than passing new legislation, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner said they probably will have to wait until 2021. “We can’t do anything until the law goes into effect,” she said.

In the meantime, she and Bell promised to do what they can to divert juvenile cases they get to programs that don’t involve prison time.

“What we can do is continue to strengthen our diversion programs, we treat children as children, we give them the help they need,” Gardner said. “We advocate for them finishing school. We give them services like trauma-based counseling.”

Juveniles who commit violent crimes are an exception. The circuit attorney still promises to try to lock up those offenders. Gardner argued that prison time won’t be enough to change most convicted criminals.

“I think that’s the conversation here,” she said. “t’s not just where to hold them; it’s the programs that should be associated with diverting everyone out of the system so they don’t come back and we’re dealing with them on another instance.”

MCU also wants to see former felons who already have served their sentences returned to the voter registry. State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed said she already has filed that legislation for next year’s session.

That may be a more difficult road to follow through the legislative process than juvenile sentencing reform.

–Alan Goforth | Metro Voice

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