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Juvenile Crime Top Legislative Priority

By DAVID ROYSE
State Capital Bureau

January 13, 1995

JEFFERSON CITY _ Throughout the country, politicians have identified crime as a major concern of American society. In Missouri, lawmakers have pegged violent crimes committed by kids as the legislative anti-crime target for 1995.

In 1993, the most recent year for which statistics are available, Missouri police agencies reported 1,841 violent crimes committed by children under 18. That was about 18 per cent of all violent crimes reported in FBI figures for the state.

Missouri's House Speaker put juvenile crime at the top of his list of priorities in his opening day speech.

``The time has come when we can no longer accept that being young in years means being young in responsibility to society,'' said Rep. Bob Griffin, D-Cameron.

A number of the bills are awaiting committee consideration, would change the process courts use to decide whether juveniles should be tried as adults.

One bill, introduced by Sen. John Russell, R-Lebanon, would require that kids between 12 and 17 years old automatically be tried in the adult court system on their first felony offense and their second misdemeanor offense.

Russell said the reasoning behind the bill is to open the juvenile process to the public. The juvenile system slaps too many offenders on the wrist, Russell says, and the public does not know about it because the proceedings are closed. Adult court proceedings are open to the public and the press.

``This is about getting it out in the open. If the community is there looking over the shoulder of the judge, it brings pressure to do what is right.''

Russell's bill would also open up the prospect of sending felons younger than 12 through the adult court system after a hearing.

Russell prosecuting young offenders in the adult court system does not necessarily mean they would be sent to adult prisons.

``This is not about sending little kids to the big house,'' Russell said. The bill allows for judges in the general criminal system to continue referring young offenders to juvenile programs. ``People imagine little kids in chains,'' Russell says. ``But this is about opening up the process.''

Is opening up the juvenile system to more public scrutiny the answer?

Jay Wood, a project director for the Missouri Juvenile Justice Association, agreed that opening the process some is a good idea. But he argued that the way to do it is not to classify more juveniles as adults, but to change the confidentiality requirements in the existing juvenile law.

One bill that would do that has been sponsored by Rep. Phil Smith, D-Louisiana. It would allow juvenile officers to release information to the public about juvenile cases, as long as they do not identify the child by name.

Russell too has introduced a bill that would require the juvenile court to release to the public data concerning juvenile offenses, ages and punishments of juvenile offenders. In Russell's version, the data would not contain the name of the youth on the first offense, but on the second offense the court could make public the name and address of the offender if the judge does not object.

Sen. Emory Melton, R-Cassville, has proposed a bill to open courtrooms to the public in cases where juveniles are charged with serious felonies.

Russell concedes that his bill to require serious juvenile offenders to be certified as adults is not likely to pass in its present form. Some lawmakers, he said, ``are not willing to concede that children should take responsibility for their actions. They want to blame someone else.''

But Wood said he fears that the public clamor for tougher crime laws will end up in some form of law that makes it easier to certify children as adults.

His organization is opposed to bills that would send more juveniles into the adult system because, he said, ``the adult system couldn't handle the numbers. It's a workload problem.''

Moreover, Wood said, ``the research tells us that a kid probably would do more time in the juvenile system than in the adult system because the lengths of stay are so short in the adult system,'' because of prison overcrowding.

In metro areas, many juveniles certified for prosecution as adults have their cases dismissed for first-time, non-violent crimes _ because of overworked prosecutors and jammed prisons.

Sen. Joe Moseley, D-Columbia, also argues that Russell's bill goes too far.

Moseley, a former county prosecutor, has sponsored legislation to give prosecutors more of a voice in process by which judge decides whether certify a child for adult trial.

In addition, Moseley's bill and others filed this year would put the burden on a juvenile charged with a serious, violent crime to demonstrate to the juvenile judge why the child should remain in the juvenile system.