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Juvenile justice in Missouri — problems and solutions

Drawing of child and scales of justice
Susannah Lohr | St. Louis Public Radio

In 1957, Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House, Elvis topped the charts with “All Shook Up,” and Missouri lawmakers wrote the state’s juvenile code.

The system’s basic structure hasn’t changed in 60 years. And in 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice raised questions about how well that structure protects the rights of the kids who come into the system.

What makes Missouri's system so unique? Let's think about it in baseball terms.

The parallel isn't perfect. But typically, the justice system is adversarial. There are two teams battling it out, with a neutral judge — the umpire — calling balls and strikes.

But in Missouri's juvenile justice system the players are switching teams, hitting and batting at the same time. And the umpire — that neutral arbiter — has actually hired many of the the people on the field.

"It's an organizational structure that raised serious concerns about conflicts of interest," said Vanita Gupta, the head of the civil rights division, in a 2015 conference call that outlined the findings of the report. "The roles of the judge, prosecutor and probation officer are blurred, and positions that are traditionally held by members of the executive branch are filled by employees who answer to the court’s judges."

Though the DOJ focused solely on St. Louis County, the basic structure of Missouri's juvenile courts is the same throughout all 45 circuits.

There have been some small changes in the past 14 months, and others are in the works.

1. A new court rule

As of July 1, by order of the Supreme Court of Missouri, judges who are hearing juvenile cases in Missouri's 45 circuits are no longer allowed to be the one responsible for hiring, firing and supervising the deputy juvenile officers, who are the main players in the juvenile justice system.

The rule was developed in 2002 by Jefferson County Judge Darrell Missey. Before he ran for judge, he was a private defense attorney handling juvenile cases.

"When I would argue with or to opposing counsel, juvenile officers, people like that, about having compassion, mercy, reasonableness, anything, I would often hear, 'Oh we can’t do that because of the judge'," he said.

Missey was determined to change that. So he ran for judge, and won. When he got appointed to hear juvenile cases, he went to the county's chief juvenile officer and laid out some new rules.

"I am not your boss. I know the statute says I’m your boss, but I’m not going to be your boss, because you need to feel at liberty to do things that might make me mad. And he looked at me and said, 'Thank you'."

What the experts say:

  • "There is clearly that arm's length to make sure that there is no inappropriate conflict of interest or something that interferes with the juvenile officer's lawful obligation to carry out their roles and interferes with their independent decision-making." — Beverly Newman, chief juvenile officer, 17th Judicial Circuit and president of the board, Missouri Juvenile Justice Association
  • "I was very excited to see that that rule changed. I'd like to think, because I am the eternal optimist of the public defender system, that we will see less familiarity. " — Natalie Hull, public defender, 16th Judicial Circuit
  • "Supervision is one part of the puzzle. There's a culture shift that has to take place. I just haven't seen a lot of changes myself in terms of major changes in practices and culture shift." — Mae Quinn, director, MacArthur Justice Center St. Louis

2. New statewide standards

Even before the Department of Justice released its initial report on the St. Louis County family court system, Beverly Newman and her colleagues were already hearing concerns about how the court system worked.

“We certainly agreed that there was merit in some of the concerns, and we needed to figure out some ways to do a better job, and to improve practice, and to make practice more consistent," said Newman, the chief juvenile officer in the 17th Circuit, which covers Cass and Johnson counties.

Newman led a task force to update standards for juvenile officers, which had last been done in 2004. The new guidelines, which are awaiting approval by the Supreme Court, are meant to clarify and limit the role of the deputy juvenile officer, she said.

What the experts say:

  • "We had already started having the conversation in 2013 about ... some things we really need to look at improving in our system. And then when the DOJ report came out, my initial thought was, some of the points that they found could apply to every jurisdiction, and we felt like we were already where we needed to be." — Marcia Hazelhorst, executive director, Missouri Juvenile Justice Association
  • "I think the perspective that nothing's been done in a year, I don't think that's a fair assessment of what's happening. I think we are trying to move things forward and to address the concerns." — Bev Newman
  • "There are some good features to them. But the fact that those standards were offered by a group of deputy juvenile officers and law enforcement officers, with only one defense voice in that room, that's hugely problematic. It's not progress, having the unconstitutional actor draft their own standards." — Mae Quinn
  • "We really, really believe that parents and youth who are impacted by the system should be involved whenever they are developing standards. And advocates were left out of the process. It's kind of like the fox guarding the henhouse. And the standards don't really have any oversight. It's a good effort, but there needs to be oversight." — Vivian Murphy, former executive director, Missouri Juvenile Justice Association

3. Transfer oversight of the deputy juvenile officer to the executive branch

Fixing the separation of powers issues is one of five key areas the DOJ said St. Louis County needs to address. Prosecutorial, judicial and probation functions must be untangled, the report said, and the Delinquency and Criminal Services, Court Programs, Detention and Legal departments should be shifted from judicial to executive oversight.

"It is not within the purview of the judiciary, which is solely responsible for adjudicatory functions, to investigate alleged offenses or act in a prosecutorial capacity. Rather, the prosecutorial function falls squarely within the executive branch's obligation to 'take care' that laws are enforced," the civil rights division wrote in the 2015 report.

What the experts say:

  • "Having been an employee of both the judicial and executive branch, I truly do favor the judicial branch. For one thing, it's not quite as bureaucratic, and it's driven toward justice rather than political pressure put on individuals higher up in the food chain." — Mary Kay O'Malley, director, child and family services clinic, University of Missouri-Kansas City Law School.
  • "Thinking like a lawyer, would it be better if they [the deputy juvenile officers] were in the executive branch somewhere? Yes. But there's a lot of barriers. One of them might be the fiscal note. And the other is people are very protective of what they’ve done in the past, they’re protective of local practice.” — Jefferson County Judge Darrell Missey
  • "What seems very clear to me is that the system does work well overall." — Bev Newman

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.