By Mary Lou Hartman
CFSY Board Member
The inspiration of Pope Francis was not limited to the six days that he was in the United States. In the days and weeks leading up to his visit – as, I’m sure, will be in the days, weeks, months, and even years after his visit – he was a beacon calling us to mercy, justice, and loving attention to those deemed outcasts in our society.
I attended the youth justice interfaith prayer service organized by the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth and other groups.. In the grotto outside the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Philly, I found a swarm of people intently writing petitions and prayers on long strips of white cloth and attaching them to metal fences and banisters, and to a structure that resembled a kind of wire hut the size of a small chapel. The cloth messages lifted in the wind and seemed to fly up to the heavens. An imam, a rabbi, and a priest all spoke of the need to ban juvenile life without parole, the need to recognize suffering and redemption, and the requirement to recognize that, as science proves, children have the capacity to change and grow and should not, must not, be discarded as worthless and irredeemable.
It’s one thing to hear these words; it’s another to witness the testimony of those who have been incarcerated, of victims’ families who have forgiven these children, of families whose children have been condemned to live out their lives in prison. The depth of expression, of love, of forgiveness, of suffering and courage of those gathered in the cloth chapel put a human face on the issue. It was deeply humbling.
Increasingly, society is beginning to realize that life-without-parole sentences for children and the prosecution of children as adults is cruel and unusual punishment. Children who have suffered abuse, violence, and poverty all their young lives are further victimized in the adult system. The Supreme Court has banned mandatory juvenile life-without-parole sentences and will take up the question of retroactivity in October.
Thanks to CFSY and its advocacy efforts, many legislatures across the country, including in conservative states such as Nevada and West Virginia, have banned all life-without-parole sentences for juveniles. Faith-based support for this cause, as evidenced by the presence of Islamic, Jewish, and Catholic faith leaders at the event on Sunday, is essential to eliminating life-without-parole sentences for children in the United States, the only country in the world that imposes such harsh sentences on youth.
As Pope Francis repeated many times during his trip here, we are called to “see” beyond the numbers, to the individual person. As a board member of CFSY, I am so grateful for having the opportunity and the honor to meet, face to face, with individuals who are working tirelessly to end this practice and who model for us a way of seeing the human face of those who suffer from this cruel punishment.