Interfaith Statement in Opposition to the Sentence of Life without Parole for Juveniles
As faith and community leaders, we write to call for the abolishment of the sentence of life without parole for youth who committed their offense before the age of 18. This sentence is at odds with the principles of human rights and restorative justice that underlay the core values of our respective religious traditions and the best of our civic ideals. It denies society’s special responsibility to honor the dignity and worth of every child.
Youth who commit serious crimes must be held responsible for their sake and the sake of society. There is simply no way to know who a child that has committed a serious crime will grow up to be. The best of our traditions call for a vision of restorative justice that honors potential for rehabilitation.
A natural life sentence for a young person is a punishment fundamentally at odds with this vision of justice shared by our all our faith traditions. It denies redemption to those who, as children, found themselves involved in an act of violence, but were rehabilitated and matured to become responsible and compassionate adults. Our laws recognize the need to protect children until they are responsible enough to make mature decisions. We must also protect children when they make terrible decisions and honor their potential for rehabilitation. We cannot embrace forgiveness as a virtue, or proclaim the possibility of redemption for all, while at the same time deny forgiveness and redemption to our children.
No amount of punishment can make up for the pain that survivors of crime suffer from the loss of a loved one. Perpetual punishment is both an inadequate and ineffective societal mechanism to help survivors of crime in their walk to restoration. As Amnesty International recently declared, life with out parole sentences for youth constitutes a “policy of denial – denial that wider adult society should accept even minimal responsibility in the crime of a child.” Too many of the youths subjected to this sentence were failed by society well before they became involved in acts of violence.
The United States is the only nation in the world imposing this punishment on its youth, a sentence that contravenes the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Michigan currently incarcerates 362 people sentenced to life without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles, as a result of a mandatory punishment scheme that allows neither judge nor jury to take youth into consideration before imposing punishment. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that children are not miniature adults and that any punishment scheme that fails to take into account their youthfulness is flawed. Clearly, this punishment is flawed in this way. Let us commit ourselves clearly to the path of restorative justice and make real the promise that redemption and forgiveness are possible for all youth by ensuring a meaningful opportunity for release.