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Juvenile Crime Differences

By: DAVID ROYSE
State Capital Bureau

March 01, 1995

JEFFERSON CITY _ While putting violent child criminals into adult prisons dominated the first weeks of the legislature's attention, a major difference between the versions passed by the House and Senate involves how to handle kids who remain in the juvenile system.

At issue is the current absence of authority for a juvenile judge to sentence a child to treatment for a specific period of time.

Instead, state Youth Services Division authorities determine when a child assigned to them by a juvenile judge can be released from their custody.

The House-passed version of the juvenile crime bill retains that system.

The Senate version, however, would give a juvenile judge power to impose a minimum length for a child to remain in DYS custody _ based on guidelines provided by the division.

Sen. Joe Moseley, D-Columbia and the Senate bill's sponsor, said the current system undermines the credibility of the juvenile system.

"When judges have a young person before them and they tell them what's going to happen and then that period of time is shortened appreciably, the judge and the system as a whole lose credibility," Moseley said.

It is because treatment is the goal of Youth Services, that the lengths of stay vary, said one juvenile judge who asked that his name not be used.

"The difference between the juvenile system and the adult system is that DYS tries to identify the causes of illegal behavior and correct it," the judge said. "It's not a jail sentence. It's very much individual."

The juvenile judge said he understands that the nature of the system can cause frustration. "There is going to be a discrepancy around the state (in the lengths of stay), but it's because they are trying to work with the child as an individual."

Another frustration, say juvenile justice workers, is that the average lengths of stay keep going down, because the youth system, like the adult system, is overcrowded.

"It's a resource problem," said Jay Wood, the project director for the Missouri Juvenile Justice Association."They have too many kids and they are kicking kids out the back door to make room for the ones coming in the front door."

One issue in this debate has been cost.

The determinate sentencing approach of the Senate would cost Youth Services an estimated $7.6 million for capital improvements in fiscal 1996, plus additional operating costs, according to projections prepared by the General Assembly's Joint Committee on Legislative Research.

It's the price tag of new facilities that led the House sponsor to leave mandatory sentences out of the House legislation. "They have 100 people on the waiting list right now," Phil Smith, D-Louisiana, said of Youth Services Division facilities. "If a judge thinks a juvenile should go to DYS for a year, but after 8 or 10 months DYS thinks he's ready to get out, why should they have to keep him longer?" Smith asked.

DYS would see additional kids if the House bill passes, but the Senate's version would mean adding facilities, said Connie Chadwick, assistant to the director of the Social Services Division _ which oversees DYS.

"When you start increasing lengths of stay, that's where you start talking about beds," said Chadwick.

Under both juvenile crime bills, juveniles convicted as adults also could be placed in DYS custody until their 17th birthday if Youth Services and Corrections officials think that would be beneficial.

On reaching his 17th birthday, a juvenile convicted of a serious adult offense would be transferred to an adult prison, under both bills.

The Corrections Department has said it would need about $800,000 to renovate a facility to house those juveniles who do end up in the prison system because both proposals would require any kids under 17 be separated from prisoners over 17.

Under the House bill, physical separation would be required by 1997, under the Senate version, by 1998. The Senate bill would only require separation for first-time offenders under 17.

Both bills also would open the juvenile process up some. Under the House bill, if a child is tried as an adult, the court records would be open just as they are in other adult proceedings.

Under the Senate version, juvenile records would become public when a child has committed a serious felony.

The Senate bill, an amalgamation of several juvenile crime bills, would also allow law enforcement officers to take fingerprints and photos of children when they take them into custody, without a court order.

The House version of the bill is pending Senate committee, while the Senate-passed version is pending in a House committee.