Grace Warren of Chicago was an advocate on behalf of incarcerated children, including her son, who was sentenced to life in prison without parole at age 17. She was on the steering committee of the National Family Network, a support and advocacy group for family of people sentenced as children to life without parole and other extreme sentences. She also had been active in several other justice reform organizations, including the Campaign for Youth Justice and Justice for Families.
Mostly, Grace was a mother who loved her child and wanted to see him and all other children given the opportunity to demonstrate that they are more than the worst thing they have ever done. Her impact is a reminder of the power of families to educate, inspire and lead efforts to reform unjust policies that impact them perhaps more profoundly than anyone else. She died on Dec. 27.
It’s hard to believe you were laid to rest today. Your passing came as a shock to many of us, not knowing you were even sick, let alone living your last days on this earth. I am filled to the brim with sadness that you’re no longer with us, and deeply grateful to have known you.
You were a warrior for justice — a natural leader, organizer and advocate for reform of our broken justice systems. Your power came through your unwavering devotion to your son, Laron, who was taken from you at age 17, and sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison. That was over 20 years ago, and not a day has gone by since then that you haven’t fought for his freedom.
I will never forget sitting next to you in Sen. Dick Durbin’s office on Capitol Hill as you courageously described the pain of seeing Laron sentenced to die in prison, of being told he was unworthy of a second chance. You shared what it was like to drive 5 ½ hours to the prison to see him on weekends, knowing there was always a chance they wouldn’t let you in if you hit traffic and arrived a few minutes late. You knew that if they did let you in, you might have to endure an invasive and humiliating search, but you were never deterred.
Nothing could get in the way of your steadfast commitment to your son. I remember you describing your fear for his well-being when he was housed in solitary confinement, and your tireless, and ultimately successful, advocacy to get the Supermax prison where he was housed shut down.
I will never forget you telling me about the guilt you felt when you laughed or experienced joy. Your child — your flesh and blood — was going to die in prison, so how could you spend time on anything but the fight for his freedom?
Grace, my heart breaks that you died before you were able to see Laron walk free. To add to the cruelty of this sentence and its impact on your family, Laron was refused the opportunity to attend your funeral because he is a “lifer.” So instead, he sat in a prison cell, separated from the loved ones who gathered together to honor, remember and bid farewell to the most important person in his life. The person who gave him life. The person who gave him hope and inspiration to keep on living after being told as a child he would die in prison.
You maintained hope until the end, so now that hope must live on in all of us. You better believe we won’t give up the fight for Laron’s freedom.
Grace, I thank you for making me a stronger, better advocate for justice. But I am most grateful for the model you set for me, and all who knew you, of how to serve as an unconditionally loving, devoted mother.
Rest in peace, my dear friend.
Jody Kent Lavy is executive director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, the country’s only national organization working to replace life without parole and other extreme sentences for youth with age-appropriate, trauma-informed accountability measures.