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A Mother's Story: Transforming Tragedy into Action

Posted in 2016, Voices Tuesday, 11 October 2016

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By Tracy McClard, Founder of FORJ Missouri

My involvement with the juvenile justice system began in July of 2007. My son, Jonathon made a poor decision causing another young man to be left with a gunshot wound. Jonathon was sixteen at the time. While I believe my son should have been held accountable for his actions, the process that followed was anything but proportional justice. Jonathan was eventually placed in an adult facility where he experienced violence, emotional trauma and constant fear. At any point in time he could be subjected to physical and sexual violence and was consistently threatened with solitary confinement. Throughout this process Jonathan remained a young sixteen years old and was forced to be surrounded by inmates who were much older and much more powerful. He was forced to give up his education to focus on remaining safe in prison.

Just before his seventeenth birthday, the horrors of the adult prison system became apparent. He conveyed to my husband and I that once he turned seventeen he would be transferred to another prison, with no hope of an improved quality of life. Three days after his birthday I received the worst news of my life. While in solitary confinement, Jonathan had hung himself.

This tragic event changed my family and me forever. The trauma we experienced during Jonathan’s time in prison and after his death illustrated that this was a problem we needed to address. Unfortunately, I came to understand that stories such as mine are common. There are so many children that are being tried and sentenced as adults and then sent to an adult facility. I knew I had to do something to change this. There are few limitations to the extent that a child is treated like an adult in our criminal justice system. Since Jonathan’s death, I have worked to push laws in Missouri that will create juvenile justice reform.

 Since my son’s death I have founded the organization; Families and Friends Organizing for Reform of Juvenile Justice and Youth Justice Awareness Month. This past year President Obama deemed October to officially be named Youth Justice Action Month. With the help of the Campaign for Youth Justice we have worked to transform a juvenile system that is dangerous and broken.

The Campaign for Youth Justice has worked for over ten years to change juvenile incarceration and develop alternatives to prison. Some of the federal initiatives they have advocated for include the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act and the Prison Rape Elimination Act. These provisions work to ban the placement of youths in adult jails and protect inmates from sexual assault. These are vital pieces of legislation, which if enacted before Jonathan went to prison, may have saved his life. Since most juvenile justice change happens at the state level, I am still fighting for legislation that will protect our youths in Missouri. This past year numerous bills have been introduced to combat the practice of youths in adult prisons. These laws include requiring any youth under the age of 18 to be prosecuted only in juvenile courts and a mandated evaluation by the Division of Youth Services to determine if blended sentencing would be appropriate for juvenile offenders. With the support of the Campaign for Youth Justice we are hopeful that these laws will pass through Missouri state legislature.
In order to stop what happened to my son from happening to anyone else’s child, we have to take action. It is important that we advocate and encourage our elected officials to take steps to alter the way we treat children in our criminal justice system. It is time to stop imprisoning and start rehabilitating. Maybe if that was the reality of our system, Jonathan would still be with us.