In 2017, 74 percent of African-American youth in Missouri who went through this process were certified to be tried as adults, compared to 26 percent of their white peers. In 2018 data, it was 56 percent of African-American youth compared to 50 percent of white juveniles.

A case before the Missouri Supreme Court could fundamentally change how children and teens navigate the criminal justice system.

In The Interest of D.E.G. vs. Juvenile Officer of Jackson County, Kansas City Public Defender Tim Honse is arguing the law must be changed to allow minors who are made to stand trial in adult court the chance to fight to change that decision without having to go through the entire adult criminal process first. 

In the current Missouri system, if someone under the age of 17 is suspected of committing a crime or misdemeanor of a certain severity, they are generally put through a cursory hearing to determine whether they will be tried in Family Court as a child or in general court as an adult. For African-American youth, the hearing more often than not ends with them certified to be tried as adults.

The 2017 Missouri Juvenile and Family Division Annual Report showed that 74 percent of African-American youth who went through the process that year were certified to be tried as adults, compared to 26 percent of their white peers. This disparity decreased somewhat in the 2018 data, though it was still present that year, with 56 percent of African-American youth who went through the hearings certified as adults compared to 50 percent of white juveniles.

Once juveniles are certified to be tried in adult court, they cannot appeal to have their status –and therefore, their potential sentencing – back to a juvenile level until their trial is over in the general court. Because these cases often take a year or more to be resolved, many juveniles are too old to be moved back to the juvenile justice system when the adult trial is over.

Honse’s client, an African-American boy known in court records as D.E.G., has experienced this system. After a short hearing at the age of 16 (his alleged offense happened when he was 15), he was assigned to the adult justice system. Since then, according to Honse, “he has had two birthdays while sitting in an adult jail.”

D.E.G., like many others, might turn 18 before he is able to appeal his certification under the current system. By that point, Honse argues, the human damage to D.E.G. may be irreversible. Honse and D.E.G. are arguing that, instead of only being able to appeal for reinstated status as a juvenile after a lengthy trial and sentencing as an adult, juveniles should be able to appeal for that status at any point during their court processing.

“Our goal is for juveniles to be able to appeal that certification right out of the gate,” Honse said.

Honse’s case relies heavily on information from a 2013-2015 audit of the St. Louis County Family Courts, in which the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) discovered that the Family Courts were not affording juveniles due process, as deputy juvenile officers – the people who effectively act as prosecutors in juvenile certification cases – were on the same payroll as judges, if not directly answerable to said judges. 

The audit also found that this effect was particularly damaging to African-American youth navigating the court system. The recommendations the DOJ made, Honse argues, cannot be implemented completely until state law is changed. 

“Many of the failings they observed in St. Louis County are part and parcel of Missouri's delinquency proceedings across the entire State of Missouri and are in fact built into the system by statute and by institution,” Honse wrote in a brief.

He echoed the DOJ’s findings that the structure of St. Louis County juvenile courts makes it impossible for there to be a complete separation of powers and then argued that this structural flaw extends across the state. 

“The roles of judge, prosecutor and probation officer are blurred, and positions traditionally held by members of the executive branch are filled by employees who answer to the court's judges,” the DOJ concluded in 2015. “These conflicts of interest are contrary to separation of powers principles and deprive children of adequate due process."

Honse said that the certification process for minors like D.E.G. is unfair because the juvenile officers doing the sentencing are employees of the court (although judges have not held hiring and firing power over juvenile officers since 2016). Family courts have no separate prosecutorial branch, meaning that the juvenile officers who determine that juveniles may be tried by adults “answer to the court’s judges” across the state, Honse said. 

“A lot of what I did in this case is just say, ‘This stuff is out there, and you guys are ignoring it,” Honse said.

The opposing counsel, however, argued that the current process is reasonable in that it reflects the federal process and that “the trial itself functions as a corrective for any reliance on inaccurate allegations made at the transfer stage.” Even if a child is certified as an adult too quickly or in error, the state argued, that certification will be corrected at trial.

“That is 100 percent wrong,” Honse said. “The certification decision is about the juvenile, about whether the juvenile can benefit from the juvenile process. It’s two different decisions entirely. Even if the juvenile did it, there’s still a lot more to the certification decision than just whether the juvenile is guilty of that offense or not.” 

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