Seventeen-year-old Kevin G., tall, muscular and handsome,
listened impassively as a deputy juvenile officer tried to persuade
a juvenile judge to give up on him.
He'd been abandoned in a dank basement at age 6. He'd bounced
among several foster homes and a boys' home, and run away
repeatedly. He'd lived with his father until his father's
girlfriend got tired of him. For more than a year, he'd lived where
Now juvenile court workers were recommending that the court
certify Kevin for prosecution as an adult on charges of murdering a
35-year-old woman as she sat in her car talking on a pay telephone.
Should the state provide rehabilitation or retribution for
violent juvenile offenders like Kevin?
That's one of the central questions remaining for the Missouri
Legislature as it wraps up a session marked by an unprecedented
amount of debate over what to do about juvenile crime.
"Crime is the number one issue on everyone's mind," said Rep.
Steven R. Carroll, D-Hannibal. "People have just had enough.
They're screaming bloody murder that they want something done."
Carroll wants third-time juvenile offenders automatically
prosecuted as adults. So does Rep. Phil Smith, D-Louisiana, sponsor
of the House's Juvenile Crime Bill.
Another Democrat, Sen. Joe Moseley of Columbia wants to fortify
the juvenile system with more money and more authority. But he also
wants to allow adult courts to prosecute children of any age for
the most violent types of crimes.
"We need to send kids the message that if you do bad things,
somebody is going to do bad things back to you," Moseley said.
The Missouri House has Carroll's and Smith's bills. Each would
divert more juvenile offenders to adult courts and adult prisons
with adult sentences.
Doing so would be tantamount to giving up on those kids,
If any of these bills becomes law, hundreds more Missouri
children could be diverted each year to the already burdened adult
system. More than 9,350 Missouri youths were referred to juvenile
courts last year for violent offenses - murder, rape, sodomy,
robbery and assault.
Many people think prosecuting more juvenile offenders as adults
is a good idea. Seventy-three percent of the respondents to a USA
Today/CNN/Gallup poll this year supported the approach.
"It's part of the `get tough' thinking," said Randy Thomas, the
juvenile justice specialist with the Missouri Department of Public
Safety. "People see it as a tangible way to address violent
Colorado, Florida and Utah passed similar laws last year.
Florida already was tougher than most states on juvenile offenders.
It transferred 3,248 children to adult courts between October 1990
and June 1991 - 25 times more than Missouri. Nationwide, nearly
100,000 juveniles go to adult jails each year.
The Missouri Juvenile Justice Association is so appalled at
what it views as a giant step away from rehabilitation that it has
asked Gov. Mel Carnahan to block any change until the state comes
up with a long-range plan for dealing with juveniles - and the
means to pay for it.
"We've got a lot of legislation based on misinformation and
fear," said Julie Cole-Agee, the group's executive director.
Would treating children like adults result in less crime? If
the goal is to guarantee punishment, no.
National studies show that juveniles prosecuted in adult courts
for crimes other than murder usually spend less time confined than
those in the juvenile system. Here's why:
Most go home. Of the 265 youths certified as adults in Missouri
in 1992, about half were actually charged, even fewer prosecuted
and only a few dozen sentenced to prison. The rest went home within
20 hours of their arrests, often because victims were afraid to
In St. Louis last year, 55 percent of the 112 juveniles who
were certified as adults were prosecuted; in 1992, only 45 percent
had been. …