Advocating Changes To Missouri's Juvenile Justice System Missouri is one of only five states to prosecute 17-year-old crime suspects as adults. Civil rights attorney Mae Quinn tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer why she's pushing to raise the age to 18.


Advocating Changes To Missouri's Juvenile Justice System

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Missouri is one of five states that automatically treat all 17-year-old crime suspects as adults. Advocates for criminal justice reform hope the state legislature will change that in the new year. Among them is civil rights attorney Mae Quinn. She joins us now from member station KWMU in St. Louis. Welcome.

MAE QUINN: Good morning.

WERTHEIMER: So first of all, can you explain to us the difference in the way adults and juveniles are prosecuted in Missouri?

QUINN: Sure. In Missouri, like in many other states, we have a juvenile court system where, even if found guilty, you would have the benefit of having your records by and large unavailable to the public. A finding against you is not considered a criminal conviction. It's considered a more rehabilitative system. If someone is in the adult court system, their records by and large are available to the public. A finding of guilt, particularly for a felony, carries significant consequences beyond the sentence itself.

WERTHEIMER: Now, you favor treating 17-year-olds as juveniles. Why is the year between 17 and 18, which is of age in most states - why is that year so critical?

QUINN: Well, I would agree there is some gray there. But there is a consensus over time that has emerged that 18 is the appropriate cutoff. Much of this has to do with adolescent brain development and the science that shows, as young people age, their brains just operate differently. They are less prone to be pressured. They have a different kind of moral compass. And the United States Supreme Court has embraced this analysis and this thinking in creating what I would argue is the constitutional cutoff for childhood. And that is age 18.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think that Missouri is likely to change the law - the 17-year-olds treated as adults law? And if they are likely to consider changing it, why?

QUINN: I am hopeful that this will be the year that Missouri does raise the age because we're an outlier. When I started working in Missouri about nine years ago as a lawyer and law professor, there were about nine other states who allowed for 17-year-olds to be direct filed, whether it was a shoplifting or shooting, into adult court for prosecution. Over time, North Carolina, New York, other states have jettisoned that practice. Folks are being educated. A lot of people didn't even realize in Missouri, if you went to the barbershop or spoke to someone in the grocery store - that their niece or nephew at age 17 could be directly prosecuted as an adult, even though they could not sign a lease.

WERTHEIMER: Now, I'd like to turn to a case which has come out of Missouri. The ACLU is hoping that the Supreme Court will take it. The prisoner is a man named Bobby Bostic who was convicted of armed robbery and assault when he was 16 years old. He was tried as a juvenile, but he did not get lenient treatment. Could you tell us about him and why folks in Missouri think that the Supreme Court will be interested in him?

QUINN: Right. Well, Bostic at age 16 received a sentence of 240 years for a non-homicide crime. And that sentence was imposed by stacking, by taking individual term of years and adding them together to impose this sentence that will ensure that he dies behind bars. And we believe that that sentence is unconstitutional because it conflicts with the United States Supreme Court case Graham v. Florida, which said that it is unconstitutional to impose life without parole in the case of a juvenile who has not intentionally killed.

WERTHEIMER: Mae Quinn is a Missouri civil rights lawyer. She's a former director of the MacArthur Justice Center. She spoke to us from member station KWMU in St. Louis. Thank you very much.

QUINN: Thanks for having me.

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