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Retired St. Louis Judge Evelyn Baker once sentenced a 16-year-old Black male to 241 years in prison for two armed robberies.

No one was seriously injured in the robberies, but the teen "didn't express any remorse," Baker said, remembering the sentencing hearing.

Now, when she thinks back, Baker deeply regrets the sentence she gave Bobby Bostic in 1997, who at 42 is still imprisoned in Jefferson City Correctional Center.

"I now realize what I was dealing with was a 16-year-old child, trying to pretend that he was really, really tough," Baker said. "It was adolescent bravado."

Back then, Baker said, judges treated children like adults because there were no studies that showed how differently juvenile brains worked.

Bostic will first be up for parole in 2091.

"If I could change the system, no child would ever be placed in an adult facility," said Baker, who has now become an advocate for juvenile justice reform. "There are kids that need to be removed from society, but there should be a separate facility for them, and there should be a lot of therapy going on in these facilities."

This year Missouri legislators passed several measures — one inspired by Bostic's case — aimed at keeping children out of adult facilities, giving them access to therapy and ensuring they have legal counsel.

Bostic is one of about 100 people who would have a shot at parole if Gov. Mike Parson signs a bill that would allow inmates who were given life sentences as juveniles to be eligible for parole after 15 years of time served.

The law would not apply to those convicted of murder.

Another bill on the governor's desk cleans up a law passed in 2018 to stop automatically charging 17-year-olds as adults — putting Missouri in alignment with 45 other states. The law was supposed to take effect Jan. 1, but only two Missouri counties — St. Louis County and Jackson County — have started processing 17-year-olds through juvenile systems.

Most Missouri prosecutors say the law is contingent on funding. So lawmakers included $17 million in the budget to fund the program.

The Legislature also approved a bill that will prevent children as young as 12 who have been certified as adults from being held in adult jails while awaiting their court dates.

Missouri NAACP President Nimrod Chapel Jr. said these changes will have the most impact on Black children. School expulsions mirror the trend for children in the court system, Chapel said, where Black students are five times more likely than their white peers to receive an out-of-school suspension.

"Overall, there are still huge disparities in terms of who is involved in the criminal justice system and what they look like," Chapel said. "And I think that those are only exacerbated at the kid level."

Keeping children out of adult facilities

State Rep. David Evans, R-West Plains, spent most of his career serving as a juvenile judge in southern Missouri.

Expanding services for children in the justice system "is one of my passions in life," he said. And for the past three years, he and other legislators have been pushing for funding to implement the law keeping 17-year-olds in the juvenile system.

From his experience, 17 is a critical age for intervention.

"The older kids get, the more services they require to change their future — education, training, therapy," Evans said. "Working with a 10-year-old is perhaps in some ways easier than working with a 16-year-old."

But these services are not readily available in adult facilities. Evans said he was happy to finally get the necessary funding in the budget.

Legislation passed this session went further than just addressing 17-year-olds in adult facilities.

Currently, when a child is certified as an adult, he or she is sent to an adult jail to await court dates — and they can be kept there for months. Because of a federal law designed to prevent sexual abuse, juveniles must be kept out of sight and sound from adult inmates.

"Many times, this translates into young people essentially being placed in solitary confinement," said Sarah Johnson, director of juvenile defense and policy for the Missouri State Public Defenders System.

About 50 impacted children could be transferred to juvenile facilities if the governor signs the bill, which would then go into effect Aug. 28.

"Juvenile detention centers have staff that understands adolescent brain development," Johnson said. "Many detention centers have schools, and they have therapists and mental health services."

These young people would be able to continue to receive treatment, even while there are cases pending in adult court.

Right to counsel

A separate omnibus bill regarding "vulnerable persons" addressed a concerning issue of children waiving their right to counsel.

Under the pending law, courts must do a serious review if children facing felonies waive their right to counsel. State Sen. Steve Roberts, D-St. Louis, said as an attorney he would never advise anyone to waive their right, especially a child.

"These are consequences that will affect them for the rest of their lives," said Roberts, who offered this amendment to the bill. "So we want to make sure that they've had the chance to consult with an attorney and there's someone looking out for their interests."

Johnson agrees it was an important step forward.

"We know that's so important for young people because their brains are developing," Johnson said. "They don't understand the long-term impact that admitting to an offense could have."

But the measures didn't come without any pushback or compromise. Roberts said he initially wanted to include juveniles facing misdemeanor charges as well, but some said that much review would bog down the system.

The language that could help Bostic get a parole hearing was offered as an amendment by state Rep. Mark Sharp, D-Kansas City, to a sweeping bill that contained numerous controversial provisions — such as making defacing monuments a felony, penalizing cities that cut police budgets and bolstering protections for officers under investigation for misconduct.

While Democrats decried the bill, Sharp was still able to attach his amendment.

"It was going to pass anyway," Sharp said of Senate Bill 26. "So it was good to have some good language on there that we could all agree with."

While Sharp supported the amendment, he voted against the underlying bill.

Like Evans and Roberts, Sharp thinks there is growing interest among both Republicans and Democrats to push for more juvenile reforms next legislative session, including bills that would help expunge charges, particularly drug offenses, from juveniles' records.

'Unimaginable trauma'

A couple of years ago, Baker visited Bostic in prison.

She heard how he grew up in extreme poverty and was introduced to alcohol and drugs at a young age. Gun violence was a daily reality.

He had few opportunities to thrive as a child, Baker said, and it's what led him to the crime that landed him in prison.

On Dec. 12, 1995, Bostic and then-18-year-old Donald Hutson robbed a group of six people at gunpoint while they were delivering Christmas gifts to a needy family in St. Louis, according to the ACLU's 2017 petition to the U.S. Supreme Court.

During the robbery, two people were shot at. One received a tetanus shot because the gunshot grazed his skin. The other testified he was shot at but not injured.

After the robbery, Bostic and Hutson forced a woman into her car and drove off. After driving around with her in the car, they robbed her and then, at Bostic's insistence, let her go, the petition states.

Then Bostic and Hutson threw their guns in the river and used the money to buy marijuana. Bostic was pulled over by police and ultimately charged with 18 felonies.

When he went into the adult system, he was a "tiny," scared teenager, Baker said — something she realized many years later, and it's why she has urged the governor to release him.

Bostic's request for clemency is sitting on the governor's desk.

"Bobby was subjected to unimaginable trauma at the hands of adults," she said, "experiences that no other child should have to go through."

The Missouri Independent is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization covering state government and its impact on Missourians.

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