Local parent testifies at hearing on juvenile detention center reform

Thursday, April 22, 2010
Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) shakes hands with Jackson parent Tracy McClard, who gave testimony at a House Committee on Education and Labor hearing Wednesday in Washington D.C.
The hearing was the first time the full committee heard testimony on reforming the country's juvenile justice system.
Photo courtesy of Eric Solomon, Campaign for Youth Justice

Jackson parent Tracy McClard was one of six witnesses who spoke before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor on Wednesday in Washington, D.C., where representatives for the first time heard testimony on reforming the country's juvenile justice system.

McClard has been pushing for change in the system since her teenage son, Jonathan, committed suicide after suffering abuse and fighting off depression in an adult Mississippi County jail.

An updated version of the Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention Act, a 35-year-old piece of legislation, was passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Dec. 17, but is now being reviewed by the House committee after its chairman, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., made it a priority of his to reauthorize the bill.

"Much like public education, we know that the juvenile justice system can be a place of redemption and rehabilitation or a place where children are thrown away," Miller said, opening the two-and-a-half hour hearing. "It is a system much like K-12 education. There are numerous examples of successful programs as well as programs and policies that continue to fail our children."

McClard said although telling Jonathan's story is painful, it was worth sharing Wednesday.

All the House committee members thanked McClard for her testimony and voiced to her they'd consider her recommendations for a new bill.

"I've been fighting this for so long that it was really nice to hear them say, 'Your son was treated wrong,'" she said. "I was promised that they would do something about it."

McClard told the committee that as a teenager in an adult facility, Jonathan didn't have access to education and rehabilitative services and became severely depressed. At a November 2007 hearing, Jonathan was denied a chance to serve his sentence in a secure juvenile facility where educational and counseling services are provided until age 21.

"While I believed Jonathan needed to be held accountable for his actions and pay retribution, I never would have imagined the conditions he would face in the adult criminal justice system that ultimately took his life," McClard said.

Youths serving a sentence or waiting for trial are 36 times more likely to complete suicide in an adult jail than youth juvenile detention facilities.

The current legislation recognizes the importance of keeping youths out of adult jails and out of contact with adults in those facilities, but applies only to youths under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court. Once they're charged as adults, the sight and sound separation requirements no longer apply.

The Senate version of the bill extends the sight and sound requirements by keeping youths waiting for trial out of the adult criminal justice system.

"I hope the committee can extend the jail removal and sight and sound protections to all youth under 18, no matter what court they are tried in. The alternative is too dangerous for our youth and our communities," McClard said.

Although McClard has spent more than two years advocating for a change in the juvenile justice bill, she feels she has more to give. She has recently resigned from her teaching position in Chaffee, Mo., and will be finished teaching at the conclusion of the school year.

McClard said she has been using every minute of her spare time -- even lunch breaks -- to draft letters to congressmen and women and work with the Campaign for Youth Justice, fighting for the reauthorization of the bill.

"I just felt more and more pulled to do only this," she said. "I knew I was going to do it eventually but I didn't know when. One day it just happened. I just resigned."

With more time to advocate for improvements in the country's juvenile justice system, McClard said she'll help to start a new organization for the Campaign for Youth Justice in Missouri. Her first step must be to gather data, such as how many youths are prosecuted as adults in Missouri and how many currently reside in adult prisons.

And if the data she needs doesn't exist, she said she'll need to start working on a bill for Missouri lawmakers to consider collecting the information.

In the meantime, she'll be contacting other families with children in the juvenile justice system and organizations who share the same interests as the Campaign for Youth Justice.

"Jonathan's experience taught me that no child should be placed with adults no matter what, because when children are put in with adults they die, physically or mentally ... I believe all kids deserve a second chance," McClard said.

ehevern@semissourian.com

388-3635

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