CAPE GIRARDEAU — Tracy McClard has signed on with an effort to keep teen offenders out of adult prisons, a crusade that is getting a political test as the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee works on a bill reauthorizing federal juvenile justice programs.
McClard is the mother of Jonathan McClard, a Jackson teen who committed suicide while in the first months of a 30-year sentence for shooting another teenager at a Jackson car wash. Jonathan McClard had just turned 17. He was charged as an adult and sent to the Eastern Missouri Reception and Diagnostic Center, the regular intake prison for adult inmates in the eastern areas of the state.
Tracy McClard has become a spokeswoman for the Campaign for Youth Justice, an advocacy group for young offenders that supports rehabilitation efforts in youth-only settings over incarceration with adults.
The campaign is supporting a bill sponsored by Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Herb Kohl, D-Wis. The measure would use federal policies to discourage the placement of juveniles in adult jails while they await trial and encourage the use of alternatives to detention with adults following conviction.
The measure also gives states greater authority to keep young offenders in juvenile facilities after they reach the age of majority, which differs from state to state. In Missouri, an offender is automatically considered an adult if they are 17 at the time of their crime.
"I never thought Jonathan shouldn't be punished, and I never thought he'd get to come home right away," McClard said. "Some kids may never be rehabilitated, but the juvenile mind is so pliable."
According to research cited by the Campaign for Youth Justice, there are an average of 7,500 juvenile offenders in adult jails or prisons on any given day. From the U.S. Department of Justice, the group cited studies showing that in 2005, 21 percent of the victims of inmate-on-inmate sexual violence in adult jails were younger than 18. Juveniles in adult facilities are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than juveniles sent to juvenile facilities and 20 times more likely than youths in the general population.
McClard said she was "flabbergasted" by the research. "There's so much information to get out there that the public doesn't understand," McClard said. Jonathan was assaulted while still in the Mississippi County Jail in Charleston, Mo., she said.
The campaign would like more states to adopt a juvenile justice system that resembles Missouri's, said Eric Solomon, media relations director for the campaign. Missouri's Division of Youth Services operates on a model that emphasizes rehabilitation, education and crime prevention.
"A lot of people are hung up with ‘you do the crime, you do the time,"' he said. "That only harms youth, who need a homelike, community alternative to incarceration and a better re-entry program. They need education, and they need rehab. They don't need to be locked up."
Parents like McClard help the campaign put a face to the statistics, Solomon said.
"Without parents, without former incarcerated youth, without organizations across the country, we couldn't move ahead as we do today," Solomon said.
"Tracy experienced it, she went through it, and legislators across the country, whether it is state or federal, are going to listen to someone who has experienced the pain or agony. That is more effective than an advocacy campaign."
In a statement accompanying the introduction of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Reauthorization Act of 2008, Leahy emphasized that juvenile offenders should be handled with policies designed to steer them into being useful members of society.
"After years of pressure to try more and more young people as adults and to send them to adult prisons, it is time to seriously consider the strong evidence that this policy is not working," Leahy said.
The campaign is working to defeat an amendment from Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., that would put federal prosecutors in control of deciding whether youthful offenders who commit federal crimes will be tried as adults or juveniles. Federal judges currently have that power.
"That derails the entire JJDPA bill that has been put forward," Solomon said.
McClard said she has received a large volume of letters, including notes from Jonathan's teachers at Jackson High School and supervisor at the prison expressing their grief. She said she is working on a book about her son.