Last week, St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell informed the community of shocking news.

His office has charged Clifton Booze Jr., 14, of Hazelwood, with seven felonies in connection to the March 26, 2023, murder of James Bond, also 14 years of age.

Berkeley Police had received calls about a wandering group of about 15 juveniles randomly firing gun shots that struck vehicles and residences in the 6800 block of Larry Lane. Responding officers found Bond, shot in the chest, dead in the front yard of a home. Witnesses at the scene, police said, identified Booze as one of the shooters.


The Class A Felony charge alone carries a sentence of 10 to 30 years in prison, or life imprisonment. Booze, whose cash-only bond has been set at $750,000, has been certified to stand trial as an adult.

Bell commented on the judges’ decision.

“The court has the discretion to certify juvenile defendants to be charged and stand trial as adults. I am sure this is one of the most difficult decisions a judge ever makes,” Bell lamented.

“No one should feel good about prosecuting a 14-year-old as an adult, but more importantly, no one should feel comfortable seeing a 14-year-old shot dead, as happened in this incident.”

Bell ended his statement with a societal challenge: 

“What more can we do to avoid tragedies like this?”

Certainly, Bond’s family and victims of crime deserve justice. But a thorough look inside the juvenile justice system underscores the critical need to address issues and circumstances that help ensnare juveniles in criminal and too often deadly situations. A systematic review also reveals patterns of bias, inequity, and dire concerns about the process of charging youth under the age of 18 as adults.

Consider the Children’s Defense Fund’s “State of America’s Children 2023” report which emphasizes “children of color are especially vulnerable to over criminalization and therefore overrepresentation on every front.” 

According to the report, of the 265,600 children arrested in the United States in 2021, 1 in 3 were Black; two-thirds (67%) in the juvenile justice system are children of color; and of the 2,000 kids under the age of 18 held in jails, approximately 85% of them were being held as adults. 

The Children’s Defense Fund recommends “well-established healthier alternatives to harsh punishment” which include “treatment, diversion, mental health counseling, and after school programs—none of which require an encounter with the criminal legal system.”

Policy and practice reforms, the report asserts, “can contribute to reducing youth incarceration while improving youth and public safety outcomes by ensuring that youth justice systems make better decisions and provide relevant, appropriate responses to youth behavioral offenses.”

Empower Missouri is a self-described agency “dedicated to secure basic human needs and equal justice for every person in our state.” According to the organization, “there are 4,500 children incarcerated in adult facilities across the country on any given day.” 

Missouri law, it alleges, “allows for children as young as 12 years old to be tried as an adult at the discretion of the court.” Arguing that treating children as adults is “not justice,” Empower Missouri is pushing “Raise the Age” legislation to ensure “12, 13 and 14-year-olds can never be tried as adults.” 

Serious violent crimes committed by youth have declined since the mid-1990s, according to the “Youth and the Juvenile Justice System: 2022 National Report.” Yet, according to the Coalition for Juvenile Justice (CJJ), nearly 300,000 children are serving sentences in adult prisons and nearly 250,000 have been transferred to adult courts each year, “where they face lengthy prison sentences.”

CJJ, a nationwide coalition dedicated to preventing children and youth from becoming involved in the courts, argues that a child’s brain structure and function undergoes considerable changes during adolescence, especially when childhood abuse, psychiatric problems and other socio/economic conditions like poverty and education are factored into the equation.

“Trying a minor as an adult in the court of law contradicts neuroscientific research and defeats the purpose of a juvenile justice system,” CJJ argues, because the practice does not “prioritize rehabilitation over retribution.”

A 2017 report by Human Impact Partners, a nonprofit working to foster equity within social and criminal justice systems, stated that “Charging youth as adults is ineffective, biased, and harmful” to society.” Laws that allow youth to be tried as adults not only reinforces racial inequities, the report outlined, they expose juveniles “to extreme violence” and imposes economic burdens of legal fees, court costs, restitution and other expenses on families that already live in poverty.

Obviously, charging a 14-year-old-with a still-developing brain-as an adult isn’t on par with charging a 21-year-old with a felony offense. Still, in Missouri, youth as young as 12 can be placed within the “adult” category of crimes.

It’s difficult to gauge what actions committed by Booze led him to being charged as an adult.

The Berkeley police department did not respond to questions regarding Booze’s intent or how he was identified as Bond’s sole killer out of a group of others foolishly firing guns on the streets. A spokesperson for Bell’s office said the prosecutor was not involved in the judge’s decision to charge Booze as an adult.

In his statement, Bell stressed that the charges against Booze “are allegations, and the defendant is presumed innocent” until he is convicted in court. Bell lamented that he welcomes “a world where 14-year-olds are not being shot dead and 14-year-olds are not being tried for murder.”

Basic answers to his question about finding ways to keep juveniles from being prosecuted as adults can be found in legislation pushed by Empower Missouri or in the simple remedy offered by the Coalition for Juvenile Justice:  

“If America truly defines itself as a nation of second chances, action must be taken now to fix the juvenile justice system.”

Sylvester Brown Jr. is the Deaconess Foundation Community Advocacy Fellow.

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis American.

Related Links:

Juvenile Injustice: Charging Youth as Adults is Ineffective, Biased, and Harmful

Empower Missouri / Treating our Children as Adults is Not Justice

Why Young People in America Should Not be Tried as Adults