Despite a state law requiring judges to consider racial disparity when deciding whether to try juveniles as adults, Missouri prosecutes a disproportionate number of black youth accused of serious crimes in regular courts, where they can be sentenced to prison alongside hardened criminals, reports Black Voice News. In recent years, African-American teens faced trials in adult courts at a rate three to four times higher than their proportion of Missouri's youth population. They were defendants in 57 percent of such prosecutions in 2008 even though they make up only 14 percent of state residents between ages 12 and 17.
One possible reason for the disparity is that Missouri does not require juvenile judges to hold a probable cause hearing before transferring a case. Nor do a dozen other states, including California and Maryland, and also Washington, D.C. Juvenile courts in 13 states could be violating a Supreme Court ruling, Kent v. United States, which says judges must determine, before transferring cases to adult court, that they are strong enough to secure a grand jury indictment. That 1966 decision requires that such criminal complaints against juveniles must have “prosecutive merit” and “measure up to the essentials of due process and fair treatment.” Mae Quinn, co-director of a legal clinic at Washington University in St. Louis, suspects that Missouri prosecutors have an incentive to take weak cases into adult court, where young defendants can feel pressured to accept a plea bargain. Even though probation is often the result, she says the threat of prison time represents a form of punishment in itself.