City, county prosecutors agree to stop prosecuting 17-year-olds as adults at MCU meeting

When Khadijah Wilson was 17, she pled with her high-school principal to intervene in an ongoing conflict with another girl. That never happened. Instead, Wilson defended herself against her bully at school one day, and she was sent to adult jail.

Wilson acted out her story in a skit at the Metropolitan Congregations United community meeting on November 3, which addressed a grave issue facing black youth in the St. Louis region. In Missouri, 17-year-olds are automatically certified as adults when they are arrested. While Missouri legislators have already passed a “Raise the Age” law, it doesn’t go into effect until 2021.

“What you just saw was the beginning of a long two months for me in adult jail,” Wilson told the audience of about 150. “They didn’t even call my mom, so I felt alone and I was scared. They literally stripped me down. And we were on lockdown for days.”

College was no longer in her plans because she had too much school work to catch up on, she said, along with costly court fees she had to find a way to pay.

“I was 17,” she said. “This was legal in the state of Missouri. But we changed that law. The problem is that it doesn’t go into effect until 2021, which is why we have to raise the age now. We are here today because I don’t want to hear another story like mine or worse.”

MCU leaders and those from various organizations said that St. Louis officials could take action immediately to make sure more children aren’t placed in the same situation that Wilson was.

At the meeting, MCU leaders asked St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner and St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell to commit to offering 17-year-olds with misdemeanor offenses diversion services, instead of jail time, in 2020.

“We do that already,” Gardner said. “We will continue to strengthen our diversion programs for all youth 17 to 25.”

Bell said, “To echo Circuit Attorney Gardner, that’s been the main focus of our platform is to extend diversion programs, particularly to our young people, so absolutely.”

Both committed to participate in the Raise the Age Working Group within 90 days.

MCU leaders also asked Rick Gaines, chief juvenile officer for St. Louis County Family Courts, to commit to offering diversion services to 17-year-olds. However, he said he couldn’t because juvenile court does not have jurisdiction over 17-year-olds currently.

Federal legislation that passed in December 2018 requires that youth held in adult jails — including those charged as adults — be removed to juvenile detention centers by December 2021.

“Do we want to wait until then?” MCU leaders asked the audience, and they screamed, “No!”

They asked Gaines to agree to keeping youth charged as adults pretrial in the juvenile detention, instead of sending them to adult jail. 

“We are working on a plan to make that happen by October 2020,” Gaines said.

MCU is also asking that the Special School and St. Louis Public School districts and court officials agree to provide education services for 17-year-olds in St. Louis city and county jails in 2020. Wilford Pinkney Jr., the city’s new director of the Office of Children, Youth and Families, commited to supporting these efforts.

The meeting also addressed Unlocking the Vote, a movement to restore the voting rights of 60,000 Missourians who are on probation or parole.

“As people return to the community, we must do what we can to help them be involved and contribute,” said Charlie Gentry, an MCU leader. “Returning to civic involvement is an important step in people rebuilding their lives.”

State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed (D-St. Louis) will be sponsoring “The Missouri Restoration of Voting Rights Act” in 2020, she told the audience. Right now, in Missouri, anyone who has been convicted of a felony and has completed their sentence — but is still on probation or parole — is prohibited from voting.

“As you can imagine, when the maximum period of probation or parole can reach 5, 10, 15 years or more,” Nasheed said. “These voters who have otherwise paid their debts to society are disenfranchised from a number of election cycles.”

In 18 other states, citizens convicted of a felony either maintain their right to vote while incarcerated, or have it automatically restored upon release, she said.

“While on probation or parole, we expect former offenders to get a job and earn a paycheck, but when Election Day comes, they are barred from the ballot box,” Nasheed said. “This is ‘taxation without representation.’”

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