JEFFERSON CITY — Tracy McClard and her mother, Vicky Moses, made it to Jefferson City on the Katy Trail by midday Wednesday. They were almost halfway through a 200-mile bike ride.
Their family was waiting for them at the trailhead, but an important member was absent: McClard's youngest son. He's the reason the two women are riding.
Tracy and her 72-year-old mother are cycling from Sedalia to St. Charles in four days on their Journey for Justice across Missouri. The women aim to raise awareness about minors who are placed in the adult criminal justice system.
McClard, creator of the Missouri group Families and Friends Organizing for Reform of Juvenile Justice , began to champion the cause after she lost her teenage son.
Jonathan McClard was 16 when he shot and injured another teenager in his hometown of Jackson, Missouri, according to the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. The altercation stemmed from Jonathan’s ex-girlfriend telling him about incidences of rape and an unwanted abortion that she said occurred with her new boyfriend.
Jonathan immediately turned himself in, and from there he entered the adult criminal justice system. On Nov. 13, 2007, Jonathan was prosecuted as an adult and received the maximum sentence of 30 years in an adult jail, according to the Information Exchange.
According to McClard, her son spent time in two separate adult jails while he was being prosecuted. After his sentencing, he was moved several more times.
“They moved him eight times, and each time they moved him, we didn’t know where he was going or where he was,” McClard said. “There was nothing we could do to keep him safe; there was nothing we could do to bring him home.”
Several family members said Jonathan was grossly mistreated while in the adult criminal justice system. A few months after his sentencing, he was moved to solitary confinement “for putting his hands in his lap,” McClard said.
On Jan. 8, 2008, not six months after entering the adult criminal justice system, Jonathan took his own life.
In the years after losing Jonathan, and with the support of her family, McClard resigned her job as a high school special-education teacher and began work as an advocate with the Campaign for Youth Justice.
“At first, I was looking for a group in Missouri for families who had kids in the adult prison system, and there weren’t any,” McClard said.
She eventually began her own group and continues to work with national organizations, such as Campaign for Youth Justice, to educate state legislators and reform Missouri youth justice laws.
“I have two basic goals, and they’re really simple,” McClard said. “One is raising the age a child can be tried and prosecuted as an adult from 17 to 18, and the other is to remove kids from adult jails pretrial.”
The Missouri Department of Social Services describes the Missouri's Dual Jurisdiction Program as a combination of an adult and juvenile sentence where the adult sentence is suspended until the youth reaches the age 17 and reports back to the court for further evaluation.
In Jonathan’s case, Child and Youth Services recommended that he enter the Dual Jurisdiction Program. There he would receive services such as group counseling, individual counseling, academic training and vocational preparation, according to the Missouri Department of Social Services.
But a Mississippi county district judge, David Dolan, handed down a maximum sentence, sending Jonathan into the prison system.
A few years after the sentence, McClard ran into the judge at an event in Philadelphia and asked him about his reasoning for the sentence.
“He said that prisons rehabilitate kids,” McClard said, “And he said that he sent Jonathan to prison instead of the youth Dual Jurisdiction Program because he had a tattoo, because he had a teardrop tattoo on his face. And he said that that showed him that he was totally nonrehabilitatable.”
McClard said that Jonathan had gotten that tattoo in jail during the time leading up to the trial because “they (the other inmates) told him he needed it to survive.”
“I came out of that meeting (with the judge) knowing that nothing I could have said or done could have saved Jonathan’s life,” McClard said.
McClard’s older son, Charles, said he suffered from a similar traumatic experience when he was in a county jail at age 17. During the eighth day of his 10-day sentence, Charles said he too considered committing suicide because of the things that were done to him.
Charles and his sister, Suzanne, have testified at hearings on youth justice to help their mother advocate for change.
McClard’s husband Dan, also supports his wife.
"I pray,” Dan said. “I’m not a big public speaker so I just pray, but that's the most important thing for me.”
McClard and her mother are due to finish their Journey for Justice by Friday in St. Charles where there will be a celebration and balloon launch “in honor of children that have ever been involved in the justice system or have died in the adult justice system,” McClard said.
The family says they plan to build on the bike ride every year.
McClard and her husband recently moved to Jefferson City so she could be closer to the policy work she is doing. McClard’s mom moved into the apartment above her, and McClard’s son is planning on moving to the same building in the apartment below her.
“My husband is my prayer warrior, and my kids’ hearts are in it with me,” McClard said. “If I’m having a hard day where I had to tell Jonathan’s story or I run into someone who was part of the process, they’re all there for whatever I need.”
Supervising editor is Gary Castor.