July 01, 2013

Missouri's Juvenile Justice System in Crisis

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

Missouri has been held out as a model for juvenile corrections programs, but the court system that puts young people into these programs is in crisis, finds a recent report by the National Juvenile Defender Center (NJDC).

“Many young people in Missouri wind up having to defend themselves in our juvenile courts – and sometimes from behind bars,” says Mae C. Quinn, JD, professor of law and co-director of the Civil Justice Clinic at Washington University in St. Louis.

“These young people deserve counsel to assist them throughout the juvenile court process, but due to inadequate funding and the problematic—potentially unconstitutional—structure of Missouri’s juvenile court system, this is not happening.”

Quinn notes that juveniles pulled into the court system have a hard time pulling themselves out. “In fact, our juvenile court system often fails to account for modern due process norms. Through outdated practices that largely impact poor and minority children, our courts run the risk of reducing the life chances of our state’s most vulnerable youth,” she says.

“Yet most people don’t know about this part of the Missouri model of juvenile justice—a system that has come to be known across the country as cutting-edge in its approaches.”

The NJDC report found that: 

  • Youth are systemically discouraged from accessing, and denied, counsel throughout the state; 
  • Their basic rights are not adequately protected and often ignored; and 
  • The structure of Missouri’s juvenile court system, by its very nature, presents constitutional issues, inherent conflicts, and a great deal of confusion about official stakeholder roles.

Students in Washington University School of Law’s Civil Justice Clinic are representing juveniles in Missouri. Their work is highlighted in the NJDC as best practices on behalf of young people charged with crimes.

“Our students represent children in Missouri’s courts to raise the bar, to say that business as usual is not good enough,” says Quinn. “The children’s rights are being violated. We are pairing quality juvenile representation with system reform.”

Read the full NJDC report