Bill would keep juveniles out of adult jails until their trials

A bill is advancing in the Missouri legislature that would keep juveniles out of adult jails before their trials in recognition of their vulnerability there.

The state Senate has voted in support of the measure, SB 618, sponsored by Sen. Wayne Wallingford, R-Cape Girardeau. The bill would prevent any youth certified as an adult from being held in an adult jail until the youth has been sentenced or turns 17 years of age. The bill would establish a commission that will develop a plan by 2018 for alternate detention of these youth.

The Missouri Catholic Conference has worked in support of SB 618, stating that "youth can suffer physical and sexual abuse by adult offenders in jails. Catholic teaching also realizes that youth are not adults and should be treated differently in the criminal justice system."

Rita Linhardt, senior staff associate with the Catholic Conference, said "everybody agrees this is a bad setting for young people. It's not that they want these young people in jails, it's just that they don't know if they have the accommodations right now to treat them fairly, especially with other juvenile offenders who are there for less serious things."

That is why the establishment of the commission is important, Linhardt said.

The bill ties into the Prison Rape Elimination Act passed in 2003 with unanimous support from both parties in Congress. The purpose of the act was to "provide for the analysis of the incidence and effects of prison rape in federal, state and local institutions and to provide information, resources recommendations and funding to protect individuals from prison rape."

At the legislative hearings, Linhardt said, "there were some real horror stories from parents of children who were 14, 15 and abused. They were in adult jails waiting pretrial for years. What ends up happening is they become separated in isolation cells. Then they have depression, suicide and all that."

Families and Friends Organized to Reform Juvenile Justice supports SB 618. It was founded by the family of Jonathan Daniel McClard of Jackson, Mo., after he was convicted as an adult of first-degree assault for shooting another teen and sentenced at age 16 to 30 years to be served in the maximum security prison in Charleston, Mo. Seven weeks later, on Jan. 4, 2008, he hung himself in prison.

Other groups, including a coalition of churches in St. Louis, have supported the legislation. They stated that several studies show the public benefits of keeping youth in the juvenile system because they will one day be returned and fewer re-offend.

The House has a similar bill, HB 1641, sponsored by Rep. Ron Hicks, R-St. Charles, also banning juveniles from adult jails and instead going to a secure juvenile facility.

At a hearing in the state House, parents of Missouri youth held in adult jails told stories of their children's physical and sexual abuse in jails, all before being convicted of any crime. A University of Illinois study found that the suicide rate of juveniles in adult jails is 7.7 times higher than that of juvenile detention centers. It is estimated that about 20 youth a year in Missouri are detained in adult jails pre-trial.

Additional amendments added to SB 618 include one offered by Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, that would prevent the shackling of pregnant women and one offered by Sen. Wallingford that would allow for restraints to be removed from juveniles in court.

The bill needs one more vote of support from the Senate before it moves to the House. 

SB 618

Modifies provisions relating to the detention and shackling of juvenile offenders and detention and shackling of pregnant offenders.

In the state of Missouri:

• Children in the justice system are considered adults at age 17

• Children as young as 12 can be tried in adult court (certified as adults)

• Upon certification, children are placed in adult jails until their sentencing hearing

• Once a child is arrested parents lose all control of that child.

• Upon certification, children in adult jails do not receive rehabilitative services or education

Source: Families and Friends Organized to Reform Juvenile Justice 

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