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'They have given us a real mess' | Some juvenile courts say they don't have funds to follow new law making 17-year-olds juveniles

One St. Charles County case could force juvenile courts to take on 17-year-olds regardless of whether they have the money to do so

ST. CHARLES COUNTY, Mo. — We shouldn’t even know his name — let alone the crimes he’s been accused of committing.

That’s because Tyrell Jones is 17 years old.

And, according to a law that took effect Jan. 1, he and others his age should be in Missouri’s juvenile system — where most of the accusations against them are shielded from public view.

But, prosecutors, public defenders and juvenile courts disagree across the state as to whether the law has taken effect.

At issue is whether the state must first make enough money available to handle the influx of 17-year-olds into the juvenile courts before it can start treating them as juveniles — something Gov. Mike Parson says hasn’t happened yet.

Now, Tyrell’s case could prove pivotal in a statewide battle the public defender’s office has waged to force juvenile courts and prosecutors to follow the new law regardless of the money.

To complicate matters, some counties are treating 17-year-olds as juveniles — making their chances of being charged as an adult dependent on where they live.

In St. Charles County, Prosecutor Tim Lohmar said he charged Tyrell as an adult because the juvenile courts refused to take his case in the absence of funding. He said the legislature needs to find the money to solve the issue.

“They have given us a real mess on our hands,” he said.

A successful system

In 1964, a neighbor accused Gerald Gault of making a lewd phone call to her. He was 15. An Arizona judge confined him to a state school until he turned 21.

Eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled juveniles deserve the same right to due process as adults.

The Gault case is often looked at as the seminal case that formed modern-day juvenile courts, “to hide youthful errors from the full gaze of the public and bury them in the graveyard of the forgotten past,” according to the Supreme Court opinion.

Children who fall into the juvenile system tend to do well, according to Sarah Johnson, Tyrell’s public defender.

She’s also the Director of Juvenile Defense and Policy for the Missouri State Public Defender’s Office.

“Not only are their brains developing but they have this amazing capability to be rehabilitated and to learn from their mistakes,” she said.

Missouri’s Division of Youth Services is nationally known for what’s called The Missouri Approach.

It’s a system that keeps kids close to home, reserves detention for only the most serious cases and allows for case-by-case considerations.

And it’s successful.

The most recent research showed nearly 73% of juveniles were not recommitted or admitted to an adult prison after three years.

The legislature recognized the research when it passed the Raise the Age law in 2018, changing the age of those eligible for juvenile courts to 17 and younger.

In doing so, Missouri joined about 40 other states who already consider adults to be those 18 and older, including Illinois.

How much will it cost?

In a statement to 5 On Your Side, Missouri’s governor said the Raise the Age law included a provision requiring the law to be funded before it could take effect.

“Full implementation of this law could cost tens of millions of dollars,” according to the statement. “The Governor’s staff has been in communication with lawmakers and stakeholders since the issue was brought to our attention, and we continue to work toward a solution.

“The solution is likely to require a statutory fix accompanied by adequate appropriations. What constitutes a ‘sufficient’ appropriation has not been defined by any court and there is not clear consensus amongst stakeholders.”

But the Office of the State Court’s Administrator did provide an estimate.

The technical arm of the state court system surveyed juvenile courts and estimated the addition of 17-year-olds to juvenile dockets across the state would cost about $13 million.

Johnson argues at least $2.6 million is already available in the state’s Juvenile Justice Preservation Fund.

Parson’s office did not respond to questions regarding that fund.

Johnson is also arguing the Raise the Age law did take effect on Jan. 1 — regardless of whether the money is there to pay for it — and that’s why the adult charges against Tyrell should be dismissed.

“Just the fact that they are facing potentially an adult conviction will follow them for the rest of their life,” she said.

‘We’re stuck’

St. Charles County Judge Terry Cundiff ruled against Johnson Monday, so she’s taking the matter to the Missouri Court of Appeals.

Should the court find in her favor, juvenile courts and prosecutors would be forced to follow the new law regardless of the money.

But an appeal’s court ruling could take weeks, if not months, noted Lohmar.

He estimates his office gets about 120 cases involving 17-year-olds like Tyrell referred to his office each year.

“I think back in 2018 our legislature got it right, 17-year-olds should be treated as juveniles, but I'm stuck in a spot here and my job is to follow what I believe the law to be regardless of whether I agree with it,” Lohmar said. “We're stuck treating 17-year-olds as adults right now.”

The same can be said in St. Louis City, where an internal memo obtained by 5 On Your Side showed the police department’s juvenile commander told officers the law had changed, but “per the authority of Lt. Col. Ronnie Robinson, until further notice, the SLMPD will continue to take offenders 17 years of age and older to the Justice Center.”

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner charged 17-year-old Eric Williams with first-degree murder, two counts of first-degree assault and five other felonies earlier this month.

Police released his mugshot and his name – even though, like Tyrell, we shouldn’t know his name or the charges against him, yet.

It’s a crime for which he likely would have been certified to stand trial as an adult.

But he never got that chance.

The outliers

At least two prosecutors in the state’s largest dockets — St. Louis County and Jackson County — are refusing to charge 17-year-olds as adults regardless of the money.

In St. Louis County, Prosecutor Wesley Bell said his office worked with the juvenile court system to ensure it could take on additional 17-year-olds.

He said, based on previous years, his office has charged about 50 17-year-olds as adults during an average year.

“It’s not something that’s going to affect our budget one way or another,” he said. “I've made a decision that we are going to follow the law.

“We have worked with the juvenile court and the presiding judge in the juvenile courts, as well as their team and they support it as well and so this is a collaborative effort to make certain that we're treating children like children.”

Should Johnson prevail in getting Tyrell in the juvenile system, his case could end up in St. Louis County.

That’s because juveniles can be charged with a crime in the jurisdiction where it occurred or where they live.

Tyrell lives in St. Louis County.

But until then, he and others like him will remain charged as adults.

“The bigger, larger impact is just the fact that they are facing potentially an adult conviction, which will follow them for the rest of their life,” Johnson said.