Mom, wrongly convicted man join forces in justice campaign - KFVS12 News & Weather Cape Girardeau, Carbondale, Poplar Bluff

Mom, wrongly convicted man join forces in justice campaign

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By Kathy Sweeney - bio | email

JACKSON, MO (KFVS) - With her son Jonathon's name hanging on the wall over her shoulder, Tracy McClard works out of the office she created in his old bedroom.

Two and a half years after the 17-year-old took his own life behind bars, McClard's creating a new statewide campaign to keep teens out of adult prisons.

She shows me the group logo, FORJ.

"What you see is Families and Friends Organizing for Reform of Juvenile Justice. But personally, for me, it's for Jon," McClard explained.

The longtime teacher resigned last spring to dedicate herself full time to the effort.

"I feel like Missouri has a pretty good juvenile justice system already, but there's kids like Jonathon that slip through the cracks and we end up losing them," she explained. "And so, I really think that I need a statewide campaign to educate the general public on what exactly happens to kids."

As she reached out to other parents of incarcerated teens, McClard decided to send an email to a man who lived that experience--Josh Kezer.

"I knew that he would understand what it was like to be in that situation where you have no control whatsoever over what's going to happen to you," McClard said. "Your family has no control."

"Our kids, I know it sounds cliche, but they're our future," Kezer said during a phone interview on Tuesday from Columbia. "So, why not want to help them? And when Tracy brought this to me, you know, I want to get involved."

"Naturally, whenever someone calls me regarding an issue, regarding children, and the need to reach out to them and have an effect on their lives, I am always willing to listen," Kezer continued. "But, when Tracy made her issue clear to me, it caused me to listen a little bit closer because we're talking about children still that, it's a section of our children that is often forgotten about and cast to the side because they're kids that for whatever reason have gone south. They've done something that they should not have and we then stop placing value on them."

A year and a half after being released from prison for a crime he didn't commit, Kezer says he's still getting used to balancing his new freedom with a newfound responsibility to help others. But, he says, it would be a waste not to help, especially with children in need.

"Why can't our schools try to work with one another, with the teachers, with the parents, with the local churches to give more guidance to our kids rather than you know just waiting for them to explode and then send them to prison and throw them away like trash?" Kezer asked. "I think our children deserve more than that from us."

"I think that we can start right now by educating our kids about the dangers of criminality. We can start right now by educating our kids about the benefits of living a law-abiding life, about the benefits of being compassionate and patient. We can start teaching our kids about wisdom," Kezer said.

Both Kezer and McClard accept and embrace the public attention that comes with their experiences in the system, good and bad. Back at her office, McClard realizes adding Kezer to the campaign adds not only a new perspective, but a new avenue to reach more people.

"Putting both of our names together brings the media in, gets our message out," McClard said. "And the wider our message is, the more people we can reach, the better off we are."

Kezer will join McClard at the official kick off of FORJ Tuesday, September 21 at Centenary Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau.

McClard and Kezer will field questions, along with Scott County Sheriff Rick Walter and a St. Louis father whose son also died behind bars.  More information on the campaign can be found at www.forj-mo.org.

Kezer says he also welcomes invitations from local schools to speak to young people about making the right decisions and staying on the right path.  Kezer can be reached at www.joshkezer@gmail.com.

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