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Advocates for Missouri's young criminal defendants eye two major changes in 2018

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

Groups that advocate for juvenile defendants in Missouri hope the state General Assembly and the U.S. Supreme Court act next year to provide young criminal defendants with additional legal protections.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri wants the high court to consider the constitutionality of long sentences for juvenile defendants. The ACLU is also part of a coalition that wants to change what it means to be a juvenile in the state.

Currently, defendants who commit any type of crime at 17 years old or older are automatically sent to adult court. Proposed legislation filed in Missouri’s Houseand Senate would boost the age to 18, although juveniles charged with serious crimes such as murder could still be tried in adult court.

Lawmakers have introduced so-called “raise the age” legislation every year since 2008. But Mae Quinn, the inaugural director of the MacArthur Justice Center, a nonprofit legal advocacy group, said she is confident about its changes in 2018.

“It’s in part because of the pressure nationwide, leaving Missouri as an outlier more and more,” Quinn said. “When I began this work, there were about nine states that stood in our shoes, and allowed 17-year-olds to be filed automatically in to adult court. We’re down to about five states, with Missouri clearly being an outlier.”

Georgia, Michigan, Texas and Wisconsin are the other four states where 17-year-olds are automatically charged as an adult regardless of the severity of the crime.

Quinn is also confident that the U.S. Supreme Court will tackle the issue of juvenile defendants who receive incredibly long sentences for non-homicide crimes. The ACLU has asked the justices to consider the case of a St. Louis man, Bobby Bostic. He was 16 when he and an older man robbed a group of people at gunpoint who were delivering Christmas gifts to the needy. One person was grazed by a bullet. They later forced a woman into her car and robbed her before letting her go.

Bostic was sentenced to 241 years in prison in 1997 for 18 crimes, including robbery, assault and kidnapping. The Missouri Board of Probation and Parole told Bostic he would be eligible for parole in 2091, when Bostic would be 112 years old.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that juveniles cannot be sentenced to life without parole for non-homicide crimes. But they have yet to address whether it’s constitutional for young defendants to get such a long sentence that they are only eligible for parole after their natural life span.

Courts have considered the issue before, said Tony Rothert, the ACLU of Missouri’s legal director who helped write the briefasking the high court to hear Bostic’s case. But the defendants in those cases had been eligible for parole in their 60s or 70s.

“Theoretically, they could still be alive,” he said. “The other thing about Mr. Bostic’s case is that in no uncertain terms, it was the intent of the sentencing judge that he spend his life in prison and that he die there.”

The justices won’t decide whether to hear the case before March.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

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