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God Cries When We Sentence Youth to Die in Prison

by Jane Argento, chair, Holy Family Restorative Justice Ministries

We bishops cannot support policies that treat young offenders as though they are adults.  The actions of the most violent youth leave us shocked and frightened and  therefore they should be removed from society until they are no longer dangerous.  But society must never respond to children who have committed crimes as though they are somehow equal to adults fully formed in conscience and fully aware of their actions.  Placing children in adult jails is a sign of failure, not a solution.  In many instances, such terrible behavior points to our own negligence in raising children with a respect for life, providing a nurturing and loving environment, or addressing serious mental or emotional illnesses.  U.S. Bishops, Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration (2000)

This week, California’s State Assembly is expected to vote on the Fair Sentencing for Youth Act (SB 9),  a measure that, if passed, would permit review and re-sentencing of some youth who are serving sentences of Life Without the Possibility of Parole (LWOP) after the youth has spent between 10 and 25 years of incarceration.  It is a small step, as these young people will be required to prove that they have changed and are no longer a threat to society.  California law will still permit sentences of those ages 14 to 18 to life without possibility of parole.

SB 9 takes into consideration that neuroscience has confirmed what parents know well that adolescents’ brains go through significant development during their teen years.  No child should be a “throw-away” kid.

As Catholic followers of  Jesus Christ, we are well aware of the healing power of forgiveness and rehabilitation.  The U.S. bishops remind us, “We believe that because we are all created by God, none of us is the sum total of the worst act we have ever committed….” We are the Imago Dei – the Image of God, and so are these children who live in state prison with the expectation that they will die there. As Catholics, we have stood firm in our respect for human life in all its forms, and we believe in the resilience of the human spirit to grow and develop all of the gifts God has given to each of us.

On August 22, under the auspices of the California Catholic Conference, Catholics from throughout the state met in Sacramento to pray and to lobby legislators in support of SB 9.   The message was a strong one.  We, as Catholic Christians joining those of other faith traditions, stand firm and recognize that children are precious in our eyes and in the eyes of our God.

“What did these kids do?” you might ask.  Some have committed what we would all agree to be heinous crimes.  Nationally, however, 50 percent of juveniles serving LWOP sentences were first-time offenders without a single other crime on their record.  Almost 50 percent of those serving LWOP sentences were not the main perpetrators of the crime for which they are serving the LWOP sentence.  With SB 9, no one who is considered to be a threat to society will be released. The review of each case will be thorough and not simple.

Your action is needed.  Please call your Assembly member and the Governor’s office and voice your support for SB 9.   Tell them that you stand in solidarity with children – especially those who prove that they can return to society as productive members.

For more information please click here California Catholic Conference.

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