KC Voices: Pediatrician Dr. April McNeill weighs in on Parson’s SB1 Bill

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April McNeill

We’ve been asking members of the KC community to submit stories about life under quarantine, protests, politics, and other subjects that provide important opinions. If you’ve got a story you’d like to share, please send it to brock@thepitchkc.com for consideration. Today, Dr. April McNeill-Johnson expresses her interests in a reduction in health care disparities among vulnerable adolescent populations with a focus on health disparities amongst incarcerated youth

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Illustration by Jack Raybuck

We all recognize the effect crime has on our community and must take responsibility together for ending it.

However, children are not “little adults” and should not be treated as such.

This week, Governor Parson wants Missouri legislators to give judges the ability to sentence children as young as 12 years old as adults for unlawful use of weapons and armed criminal action as part of his “law and order” special legislative session.

Until I became a pediatrician, I did not fully grasp how complex and impressionable a child’s developing body can be mentally, emotionally, and physically. For example, when I am writing a prescription, I cannot give a child the same dose as an adult because it could potentially be harmful. In the same manner, our legislators should not treat children the same as an adult in court proceedings. 

Children learn to become adults through trial and error and their brains undergo structural and functional changes well into adolescence—changes often associated with impulsivity and risk-taking behavior. On a brighter side, this stage of life is also beneficial for flexibility and change. In an appropriate environment, with adequate mental health support, education, and positive reinforcement, children have the opportunity to grow and develop into capable and contributing individuals. 

Alarmingly, studies have found that over 90% of youth in the justice system have experienced at least one form of childhood trauma. Placing additional youth in an adult criminal system puts them at higher risk of experiencing sexual assault, physical attacks, introduction to gang activity, exposure to drugs, suicide, and other trauma. 

Finally, research shows that juvenile transfer laws have little or no effect reducing rates of crime and rates of recidivism increase for juveniles with cases in adult criminal court. 

In order to create a safer environment for our state, our legislators should focus on developmentally appropriate alternatives, decreasing juvenile detainment, equity, and addressing the root causes of criminal activity and trauma. Legislators should not vote to prosecute children as “little adults.”

Update: 8/11/20: The state Senate debated this bill and ultimately age was raised from 12 to 14. The bill passed the Senate 27-3 and now heads to the House.
Categories: Politics