Four years after a Missouri mother started a homemade campaign about the judicial system that led to her son’s suicide in prison, more than half of the states are hosting events aimed at increasing awareness of the treatment of youth in adult courts, jails and prisons.
“I couldn’t fathom the treatment he received. I mean I was really scared,” said Tracy McClard, originator of Youth Justice Awareness Month, marked every October. She started the awareness campaign in 2008 with a 5k run/walk. It’s in memory of her son Jonathan, who hung himself three days after his 17th birthday rather than face 30 years in prison.
It started with a girl and a love-struck boy. After their breakup, the girl played her old boyfriend off her new boyfriend, McClard said. Jonathan abused over-the-counter drugs, which dulled his senses. Jonathan believed that the girl was being abused, was pregnant, and that the new boyfriend was going to kill mother and fetus. McClard told her son not to believe the tales.
But Jonathan shot the new boyfriend. In his mind, Jonathan aimed only to scare the other boy, not to kill him, she said. McClard explained: “He confessed to the police because he thought the police would understand why he did what he did, because he was saving two lives, he thought.”
The new boyfriend survived, and Jonathan was charged with first-degree assault with a deadly weapon.
“The day he was certified as an adult, he went straight across the street to the adult county jail,” said McClard. “I was always reassured that while he was in the jail ‘oh, yeah, he’ll be fine,’” she recalled. But on visits he was always beaten and bruised. He got a jail tattoo because the other inmates told him he needed it to survive.
On any given day, there are about 7,500 under-18s in adult jails, according to 2009 federal numbers. Another approximately 2,500 are in adult prisons.
Instead of Jonathan heading to the Missouri Dual Jurisdiction Program, which provides counseling and education to juvenile inmates in a residential dorm-type setting open to family visits, the judge sentenced him to 30 years in prison. He hanged himself rather than face that life.
His mother, a runner, held the first race, knowing she could reach a wider world of people who have no involvement in the juvenile justice system.
Last October, about 1,500 people joined a run or other event in about 15 states where events were held, said Liz Ryan, president and CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice, a Washington, DC-based group that is helping people organize awareness month events nationwide. CFJY works to keep under-18s out of the adult criminal justice system.
“This year we expect more than double the number of people and close to double the number of activities,” she said, plus reach an untold number of people who see campaigns on Facebook or other social media websites.
Since last year, there have been shifts to funnel juvenile offenders away from adult systems in several states including Colorado, Ohio, Texas and Oregon. Next year, Ryan expects debate in at least four states on reducing child involvement in adult courts, jails or prisons.
The treatment Jonathan received “shouldn’t be happening in Missouri,” said McClard. “Because … A piece of our system is good. It’s just the problem with it, is not all kids that get into trouble get into this system.”
Jonathan passed assessment to get into the Dual Jurisdiction Program, but the prosecutor argued against it and the judge agreed.
“I was so mad that prosecutors and judges have this type of power to just tear families apart and just throw our children away,” McClard recalled.
New federal regulations require that children be separated from adults in adult jails and prisons but also specify that the youth cannot be put in solitary confinement or in their cells all day. “We know that that [long or solitary confinement] is what happens when kids get separated from adults,” said Ryan.
States must comply with the federal rule by next August.
Ryan is optimistic that both Democratic- and Republican-led states, despite tight budgets, will continue reforms. “Recidivism research is having an effect,” she said, pointing to studies that say putting children through adult courts reduces reoffending. Both blue and red states are beginning to channel more youth away from adult incarceration.
In December, McClard and other activists and some state legislators will re-file a bill that proposes to remove barriers to the Dual Jurisdiction program.
McClard said that since her first run, “things are changing, people are becoming more aware … Conversations are starting, people are changing.”
“The way we’re doing it now is so wrong and so horrendous we cannot keep doing it,” she said. Kids are “so amenable to rehabilitation if you give them what they need.”
Photo by Campaign for Justice.