Though minorities make up a small percentage of our nation’s population, they are overly represented in our nation’s criminal prosecutions. Despite an unusual state law requiring judges to consider racial disparity when deciding how to handle cases involving teens, a disproportionate number of African-American teens continue to go to trial as adults in Missouri courts.
In 2009, 69 percent of teens prosecuted as adults in Missouri were African American. This is almost double the 36 percent prosecuted as adults the previous year. Black youths, ages 10 to 17, make up 15 percent of the state’s population under the jurisdiction of juvenile courts.
In Missouri, juvenile court judges must follow standards when deciding to whether to transfer the cases to the adult system. Among these are a threat to public safety, the viciousness of the crime and the personal harm done. The standards also include a test for racial disparity, but, given the rise in black teens prosecuted as adults, this standard has not been effective.
Steve Gaw, a former state representative, was one of the sponsors of the youth crime bill. “The increase in the racial disparity of certifications is a red flag, which warrants investigation,” Gaw said in an email. “It should not be assumed that the difference in the certification numbers [is] driven by prejudices of judges or prosecutors. There are many factors that could cause the difference, including such factors as the relative social, economic and educational opportunities for racial groups.”
Judge Michael Burton believes it to be a socio-economic issue. “The issue is why so many African-American kids are being accused of committing violent crime,” Burton said. “There is a much higher percentage of African-American youth that are poor.”
The intent of the legislation requiring consideration of racial disparities was to compel judges to consider “human prejudices,” said Gaw.