Missouri judges prepare for big change in juvenile court system

Missouri judges prepare for big change in juvenile court system
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The U.S. Justice Department helps push Missouri to change how courts deal with juvenile cases. Missouri lawmakers say Justice Department officials, who were critiquing the state’s court system after the Michael Brown case in Ferguson, said there was the possibility of conflict of interest among circuit courts.

Missouri has a one-of-a-kind problem.

“I’m not aware of any other states that have been called to task over this, no,” says State Representative Bill Lant.

Presiding Circuit Court Judge Timothy Perigo hires and fires juvenile officers. Those officers can represent a juvenile in court.

“Per capita, we’re one of the busier ones in the state,” says Judge Perigo.

Representative Lant says he hasn’t heard of a juvenile officer in Southwest Missouri taking advantage of the presiding circuit court judge who got him the job. Elsewhere in the state, though, is a different story.

“I don’t want to make anyone look bad. But, sufficive to say, there are places where people have lost track of the most fair way of doing things,” says Representative Lant.

Representative Lant is part of a joint committee, with six other state representatives and seven state senators, who’ve helped convince the state’s supreme court to change court administrations across the state. Starting April 1, only associate circuit judges, the ones who don’t hire and fire juvenile officers, will be allowed to preside over juvenile cases.

It’s a big change for the state’s court system, since presiding circuit court judges have, for as long as they can remember, been able to do otherwise.

Judge Perigo has enjoyed being part of juveniles’ rehabilitation.

“On a personal level, I don’t get to help the kids myself. But they’ll still be helped,” says Judge Perigo.

Missouri lawmakers say the help for juveniles, without even the possibility of biasness, is well worth it.

“In some states, they don’t have juvenile officers. The function is done within the Division of Children Services. But Missouri’s unique system has made it one of the best in the United States for caring for our children,” says Representative Lant.

Judges say the change won’t create a backlog of cases. Judges will simply have to rearrange judges’ schedules.

The joint committee that Representative Lant serves in will next talk about ways the state’s adoption and foster home systems can be improved.