Missouri's process for certifying juveniles as adults is unconstitutional and discriminates against African Americans, a public defender for a black 16-year-old boy told Missouri Supreme Court judges on Wednesday.
Public defender Tim Honse said the minor, identified only as D.E.G. in court documents, was 15 at the time of the alleged offense and 16 when he was certified as an adult.
A Jackson County grand jury later indicted him for first-degree assault and armed criminal action. His trial is slated for March.
In court filings, Honse argued that race plays a role in the certification of children as adults and that black minors in Missouri are disproportionately more likely to be tried by the adult justice system.
"Here, D.E.G. is black, African American, and his mere interaction with the system leads him to be disparately treated," Honse wrote in court filings.
Honse pointed to 2017 Missouri court data that show black minors were almost six times more likely to be certified as adults compared to white juveniles. He also cited a 2015 Department of Justice report that found black youths in St. Louis County were treated more harshly than whites. He said those findings could be applied statewide.
Honse asked judges to toss out a 1972 Missouri Supreme Court ruling that outlined the appeal process for certification as an adult. Under the current process, minors charged with a crime can dispute their certification, but only after their adult court proceedings end.
Honse wants juveniles to be able to appeal sooner. He said D.E.G. might turn 18 before he's able to appeal his certification as an adult under the current system.
"D.E.G. is still a child by every measure other than that measure of the juvenile court's certification decision," Honse said. By the time the teen is able to appeal, Honse said, the "legal prejudice and the human damage to him will be complete and irreversible."
The justices questioned whether changing the process would be any quicker or if doing so would put youths through an even longer ordeal.
"My concern would be, whether the opinion is rightly decided or not, is that this may actually cause the process to slow up even further," Judge Brent Powell said in court.
Lori Fluegel, an attorney for Jackson County's juvenile officer, defended the current system and said there are safeguards to ensure that minors receive due process.
She also said that allowing for an earlier appeal of adult status "could be detrimental to the juvenile" because in some instance they would have to go through the process, "not once but twice."
Judges did not indicate when they will rule on the case.