Jonathan McClard's mother lobbies for juvenile justice bill

Monday, January 11, 2010
Tracy McClard

A Jackson mother who has been advocating for change in the juvenile justice system since her son, Jonathan, committed suicide in prison in January 2008 is thrilled to see progress on a 35-year-old piece of legislation getting a facelift by lawmakers in Washington, D.C.

Although the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Reauthorization Act was passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Dec. 17, Tracy McClard knows there's a lot more she can give for the cause. The bill has yet to appear in the House of Representatives and must pass through the Senate, where it could be attached to another piece of legislation.

Since March 2008, as a spokeswoman for the Campaign for Youth Justice, McClard has written and sent letters to Missouri senators and representatives and even made a trip to the nation's capital, emphasizing the importance of the bill's passage and trying and incarcerating youth separately from adults.

About 200,000 youths are tried, sentenced or incarcerated as adults every year in the United States, according to the Campaign for Youth Justice.

"It's legalized child abuse, that's what it is," McClard said.

"They're raped, they're beaten, they're put away in these little cells. If they do survive, when they get out they're not safe because they have had to learn how to survive on fighting."

A study published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention complements McClard's perspective, saying that youths previously tried as adults are 34 percent more likely to reoffend than youth who go through the juvenile justice system.

As it's currently written, the bill improves the nation's sight and sound requirements by keeping youths waiting for trial out of the adult criminal justice system and, in the limited circumstances where a minor is locked up with adults, the bill ensures they'll be separated from adult offenders.

In addition, the bill supports keeping status offenders, such as youths who violate curfew or alcohol and tobacco laws, out of jail and held in juvenile-only facilities. The requirement ensures youths get a more effective intervention, crisis counseling and are able to access their family for support.

"This bill isn't going to say no child can be prosecuted as an adult, but it's saying that we've been doing it way too much," McClard said.

"In 99.9 percent of the cases they need to stay in the juvenile facilities and there are cases where, once they reach the age of 21, they may still need to be kept in secure facilities."

Another requirement of the legislation involves strengthening the disproportionate minority contact to ensure youth of every race are sentenced fairly and appropriately depending on the crime. McClard said it's become common for minorities to be subject to stronger punishment than similarly charged Caucasian youth.

According to the Missouri Juvenile Justice Association, nearly 60 percent of youths offenders serving time in adult state prisons are black, although blacks only make up 15 percent of the youth population.

The bill, if passed through Congress, would be supportive of state budgets by not jeopardizing federal funding for rehabilitating youth convicted in adult court in juvenile facilities.

Current application of the law penalized states for using juvenile facilities instead of placing them in prison.

The bill also creates an incentive grant program for states that take initiative to refine youth crime prevention practices, improve areas of workforce development and provide support for youths with mental health and substance abuse needs.

"This bill is just saying give these kids a chance before you throw them away," McClard said.

Despite a Senate recess, McClard hasn't slowed her research and writing process. She's currently drafting a letter to Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the Education and Labor Committee for the House of Representatives.

In a meeting at the W. Haywood Burns Institute Friday, Miller stated it's a priority of his to reauthorize the legislation.

"He's very favorable to listening to parents that have these kinds of things happening," McClard said of Miller.

"There's policymakers now that are really starting to stand up and take a more educated view of what exactly this is doing to our nation."

In addition to writing letters, McClard continues to be busy with the Campaign for Youth Justice and is scheduled to speak at the National Families of Prisoners conference in February. In May, she plans to travel to Baltimore to establish a solid foundation in advocacy work. She hopes to learn more about what she can do for juvenile justice.

"My goal is to do this full time. I'm just not quitting, ever," McClard said.


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