A Struggle for the Nation’s Moral Center

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Sharletta Evans of Denver says it was her faith that motivated her to forgive the teens who killed her three-year-old son, Casson, during a drive-by shooting. When she did, Evans says, she could feel the hate evaporate from her body. She has since developed a relationship with one of the young men, whom she hopes to see released from prison.

Minnesota’s Mary Johnson drew on her faith for the strength to meet with and forgive Oshea Israel, who was 16 when he killed Johnson’s 20-year-old son, Laramiun Byrd. Mary now considers Oshea, who lives next door to her, her spiritual son. The two now frequently speak together about anti-violence and the power of forgiveness.

And Mona Schlautman, whose 15-year-old son, Jeremy Drake, was kidnapped and killed in a park in Omaha, Neb., says her faith — plus her belief that it is good public policy — have led her to support changes in that state’s laws that would ensure young people who go to prison for serious crimes have meaningful opportunities to be considered for release after they have acknowledged what they did, asked for forgiveness and sought to make amends. She testified before the Pardons Board several times on behalf of Jeremy Herman, who at 17 was convicted of kidnapping her son. He was released from prison after 19 years.

Throughout the United States, people of faith are on the front lines of the effort to replace life without parole sentences for children with age-appropriate accountability measures that focus on rehabilitation and reintegration into society. The Juvenile Justice Week of Faith and Healing is an annual event intended to engage faith leaders and further increase awareness of individual, community and social needs arising from the current juvenile justice system. It was started by Javier Stauring, director of the Healing Justice Coalition in California. He sought a way to encourage people of faith to open their hearts and minds through prayer, education, service and advocacy. This year the event was held March 4 through March 10.

Each year, events are planned to stimulate dialogue among offenders, victims and the community regarding the causes of crime, and to suggest structures needed to prevent youth from becoming engaged in the cycle of violence. The long-term goal of the Juvenile Justice Week of Faith and Healing, according to the Healing Justice Coalition, is to “offer young offenders hope and alternatives to a lifetime as a hardened criminal, while society implements more fully the principles of restorative justice.”

Although last week was chosen to focus attention on the issue, there is no bad time to engage religious leaders on this issue, and many family members, activists and others plan to continue their work over the coming weeks and months. Faith communities are vitally important to the effort to replace life sentences without parole with age-appropriate punishments. Virtually every faith tradition prioritizes the values of redemption, preferential treatment of our children and caring for the most marginalized among us. In addition, faith communities have been among the most active members of many efforts for social change.

The U.S. Supreme Court, drawing in part on brain and behavioral science research, has made it clear that children are categorically different from adults. These differences, the court ruled, must be considered when holding children accountable for committing major crimes. In addition, the Court has said that specific other issues should be considered, such as the young person’s age, role in the crime, history of abuse and potential for rehabilitation. Children are not simply tiny adults.

Policymakers and others are demonstrating an increased awareness and acknowledgement of these differences. They are rethinking policies that require youth to be tried and sentenced as adults and those that allow children to be incarcerated in adult jails and prisons, without consideration of their unique characteristics as children.

I work on issues of life without parole for children because I see it as a pressing social, political and justice issue. As a seminarian, I also see it as part of my call in ministry, a piece of my duty to work not only in the church, but beyond it. The CFSY is not a faith-based organization, but I am able to put my faith into practice here. And as a person of color, I am alarmed, frightened and dismayed by the disproportionate representation of African-Americans and Latinos among those given this sentence. For example, a new report from Connecticut notes that 100 percent of those in the state serving life without parole for crimes committed when they were younger than 18 are black.

The singer and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte once said of the struggle for racial equality, “We are in a struggle for the soul of this country. We’re in a struggle for America’s moral center.” And so it is for us today in this effort. One of a society’s most important measures is that of how it treats its children. Yet, the United States is the only country in the world that sentences children to die in prison. The United States and Somalia are the only countries that have yet to ratify the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which prohibits sentencing youth to life without parole.

However, we are seeing important change. Communities of faith, children’s organizations, civil rights groups, juvenile justice organizations and others have been part of this effort, and together, we can ensure the momentum continues. In fact, we have little choice. Our country’s moral center is at stake.

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