Juvenile detention bill

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JEFFERSON CITY – Tracy McClard lost her son, Jonathan, in 2007, when he hung himself in a Missouri prison. He had been abused, physically and mentally, for months after being arrested and placed in an adult facility. Jonathan had just turned 17, three days earlier, and he was considered an adult in the state of Missouri.

“It’s just this horrible tragedy that should not have happened,” McClard said.

McClard founded “Families and Friend Organized for Reform of Juvenile Justice" (FORJ). She started the organization to make sure no parent had to go through what she did. 

“That’s why I got into doing this, because it’s a tragedy to throw kids away, it’s a tragedy to subject them to child abuse, it’s a tragedy that the adults in their live that have the power over them don’t care if they’re in the wrong place,” McClard said.

Monday night, an executive house committee will vote on a bill that, if passed, will change the way juveniles are imprisoned in Missouri. The bill would make it illegal to imprison children under the age of 17 in an adult jail or prison.

Currently, any child under the age of 17 who has been charged with a crime in the state of Missouri can be placed in an adult jail or prison. The bill’s sponsor, Senator Wayne Wallingford, R-Cape Girardeau, said it’s time Missouri follow 40 other states that have passed similar legislation.

“The youth do a much better job in the juvenile system; there’s age appropriate education services, and it’s all tailored for the youth. In an adult facility, you don’t get that,” Wallingford said. 

Wallingford said this isn’t just a question of whether it’s morally just to imprison children in adult facilities – he said it could also save the state a lot of money. In 2003, the federal government passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which states that children under the age of 17 must be separated from adults in detention facilities.

Wallingford said Missouri could lose grant money if they don’t pass the bill, and building separate facilities for children within adult prisons would be too expensive.

“Children being used in adult prisons is the most expensive option that yields the worst results,” Wallingford said. 

The bill passed unanimously on the senate floor on April 11, 32-0. The civil and criminal proceedings committee will vote on the bill Monday night and, if it passes the two-tier committee system, it will go to the house floor.

Wallingford said he believes it’s unreasonable for minors to be place in adult prisons because many are arrested for petty crimes.

“Twenty percent are not even convicted of an adult crime, and 15 percent aren’t convicted of a crime at all,” Wallingford said.

The senator is also sponsoring another bill that, if passed, would raise the legal age of a child in Missouri from 17 to 18. He said he doesn’t expect the second bill due to time constraints.

“Time is the enemy, but I hope it will pass next year,” Wallingford said. “At least I got the discussion going.”

Wallingford said the goal of the two bills is to give juveniles in Missouri the best chance to turn their lives around.  

“These youth will one day return to our communities; we want them to be adjusted for the best possible outcomes to become productive citizens.”