A once-celebrated change to the way Missouri treats juvenile offenders is now in limbo due to lack of funding.
Two years ago, Missouri lawmakers in both parties overwhelmingly backed plans to stop automatically charging most 17-year-olds in adult court.
The change, set to take effect in 2021, is supposed to give hundreds of teens a second chance to turn things around in rehabilitation programs tailored to their age group and away from adult jails where they can be in danger.
In return, the state is supposed to get young offenders exiting the system less likely to re-offend and more likely to get good jobs and pay taxes.
“I have three good reasons for this bill,” bill sponsor Sen. Wayne Wallingford, R-Cape Girardeau, told the Missouri Times in 2018. “It saves our youth, it makes Missouri safer, and it saves the taxpayers money.”
But there are at least some upfront costs, and lawmakers haven’t paid up.
A line in the 2018 bill says the change “shall not be effective” until the state appropriates enough money to cover the cost of expanding the juvenile system, and this year’s budget didn’t get it.
The state’s judicial system said it would need $13.2 million to fund the program in every circuit in the state, but Republican Gov. Mike Parson’s budget proposal offered none.
Senate Appropriations Chair Dan Hegeman, R-Cosby, said the legislature seconded that decision months later as it worked to brace the budget for the pandemic.
“Because of the COVID-19 (crisis) and not knowing what the revenue situation would be, this was just one area that we thought we could just put off until next year,” Hegeman said in an interview.
House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, said it didn’t have to be that way, pointing out the legislature could raise money by taxing online sales like most other states and ending a tax discount for companies that pay them on time.
But she said she wasn’t surprised by the stalling.
“Just add it to the list of good, bipartisan ideas that never get implemented,” Quade said. “It’s frustrating because people are suffering.”
The associations representing local prosecutors and juvenile officers across the state, including Greene County’s, released a statement weeks later warning of the impasse.
Darrell Moore, the executive director of the prosecutors’ association, said his organization suggested rewording the statute to let the change go forward regardless of funding in the regular January-May session or Gov. Mike Parson’s special session on crime in July.
Nothing came of that.
“Unfortunately it was not taken up and fixed in the regular session and not included in the special session call,” Moore wrote in an email this week.
Hegeman, the Senate budget chief, said the idea will come up again.
“I think we’ll give it serious consideration next year as we look at the Fiscal Year ’22 budget,” he said.
Kelli Jones, a spokeswoman for Parson, said the governor is also interested in a fix, though she did not mention additional funding courts are still requesting.
“The Governor’s Office has been in communication with members of the General Assembly and is supportive of a statutory change to resolve this issue,” Jones wrote in an email Friday. “The Governor is encouraged that lawmakers have taken note and began discussions on remedies months ago.”
In the meantime, local officials are watching and waiting.
Bill Prince, Greene County’s chief juvenile officer, said his team has been working to get ready for the shift regardless of funding, but they can’t move forward without clear direction.
“We’re ultimately wanting to do what’s best for these youths and for the families,” he said. “We just want to make sure we have the statutory authority to do it.”
Austin Huguelet is the News-Leader’s politics reporter. Got something he should know? Have a question? Call him at 417-403-8096 or email him at email@example.com. You can also support local journalism at News-Leader.com/subscribe.
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