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In February 2012, Cole County Circuit Court Judge Pat Joyce sentenced Alyssa Bustamante to life in prison - with the possibility of parole - to be followed by a separate, 30-year sentence.

Bustamante, now 21, is serving those sentences in the Missouri Women's prison in Vandalia, after she pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and armed criminal action charges for the Oct. 21, 2009, murder of neighbor Elizabeth Olten, 9, when Bustamante was only 15.

When she first was detained, Bustamante was held at Cole County's juvenile attention center.

But, after the teen was certified to stand trial as an adult, she was transferred to Sheriff Greg White's control and held in county jails.

Now, Missouri lawmakers are considering how to handle cases involving other teens who, like Bustamante, are charged with first-degree murder.

Last week, Sen. Wayne Wallingford, R-Cape Girardeau, asked the Senate's Judiciary and Civil and Criminal Jurisprudence Committee to approve a change in how teens are held until their trials.

"This act prohibits the detention of any juvenile certified as an adult, in an adult jail, until the juvenile has been sentenced," Wallingford explained. "Instead, the juvenile must be held detained in a juvenile facility that adheres to the current state standards."

Wallingford reminded committee members: "A majority of U.S. adults believe that juvenile facilities are more appropriate to hold juveniles convicted of crimes than adult prisons."

And, he noted, in Missouri, a child as young as 12 can be certified to stand trial as an adult and, "once certified, these youth are transferred to adult county jail," where "it is extremely difficult to keep children safe - and when youth are placed with adults, they are at risk of physical and sexual abuse."

To avoid those assaults, Wallingford testified, the teen suspects "are often placed in isolation (and) frequently locked down 23 hours a day in small cells, with no natural light. These conditions can cause anxiety, paranoia and exacerbate existing mental disorders, putting youth at risk for suicide."

Statistics show that youth held in adult jails "have the highest suicide rates of all inmates in jails," Wallingford said.

"Youth are 36 times more likely to commit suicide in an adult jail than in a juvenile detention facility - and 19 times more likely to commit suicide in an adult jail than youth in the general population."

Wallingford said Missouri is one of about nine states that "don't follow the recognized research and new scientific evidence" about juvenile incarceration.

Tracy McClard, who recently moved to Jefferson City from Southeast Missouri, told the committee: "The families that I've worked with across Missouri - and, right now, we have a 13-year-old in St. Louis County - every one of their children has been sexually or physically abused while they were there.

"It usually happens within the first 48 hours. And, even though these children are older, sexual abuse of any child is criminal, whether it happens in a jail, in a family or with strangers."

She said keeping the teens in the juvenile center would prevent those crimes from happening.

The ACLU of Missouri, the Missouri Catholic Conference and the Missouri PTA all supported the bill.

But two adults who work with juvenile centers opposed it.

Rick Gaines, superintendent of Perry Juvenile Justice Center, Columbia, told the senators: "Our detention facility isn't designed for long-term treatment. Our average length of stay in our facility right now is six to eight days."

But youth waiting to be held for certification often stay up to 90 days, Gaines added, and "once a child is certified (they) could sit in our detention facility for almost two years. And some could wait for three years."

Gaines said he's not against the idea of putting certified teens in a place that's not a county jail - but that place shouldn't be a juvenile facility.

He reminded the Senate committee that state law created the detention centers as temporary facilities.

Holding youth for a long time while they await a murder trial "could taint the atmosphere of our detention centers."

Tammy Walden, Camdenton chief juvenile officer for the five-county 26th judicial circuit that includes Moniteau, Miller, Morgan, Camden and Laclede counties, agreed with Gaines.

She told the committee about another October 2009 murder, "when a 16½-year-old young man traveled from Springfield to Lebanon, where he participated in the murders of three Laclede County residents."

That teen was certified in December 2009 to stand trial as an adult, she said, and pleaded guilty last November "to the "lesser counts,' which he had been charged - first-degree burglary and armed criminal action - and began serving a (prison) sentence," she said.

If lawmakers pass Wallingford's bill, she said, "This ... young man would have been housed - for years - in the same facility as 12- and 13- and 14-year-old children. Over the course of those five years, that means this one young man ... would have been in programming with hundreds of much younger children."

She told the committee that in 2013, "Missouri's juvenile courts disposed of 21,111 referrals for law violations (with) 4,961 admissions to Missouri's secure juvenile detention facilities.

"In that same year, there were only 68 youth in the entire state of Missouri who were certified to stand trial as an adult."

The committee didn't take any action on Wallingford's bill last week.

Last week, Sen. Bob Dixon, R-Springfield, noted current state law has only two punishments for first-degree murder convictions - death or life in prison without parole.

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling said the death penalty can't be applied to anyone who was 16 or younger when they committed their crime, and - in 2012, in a case called Miller v. Alabama - the U.S. high court removed life without parole as a mandatory sentence for teen killers.

"As a result of that, there is no punishment for first-degree murder under current Missouri law that is enforceable - that is, constitutional - against those who committed murder before they turned 18," Dixon said. "We must get this done.

"If we don't get a constitutional sentence in our statutes ... the probability of us being sued by folks who have either been charged or may be sentenced is very high. And we will very possibly be in the position where the state could be sued - costing us millions of dollars."

Without debate, the full Senate gave its first-round approval to Dixon's bill that would offer teens convicted of first-degree murder either a prison term - 50 years for teens 16 or 17 at the time of the crime, and 35 years for those under 16 - or life without parole.

"Bear in mind, for second-degree murder, the top range there is 30 years - so, we're being consistent," Dixon told colleagues.

His bill still needs a final Senate vote before it can be sent to the House.

Sen. Joe Keaveny, D-St. Louis, has proposed lower sentences of 14-30 years for those convictions.

The Judiciary committee took testimony on his bill on Feb. 24 but hasn't recommended it yet to the full Senate for debate.

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