Interfaith group seeks second chance for youths sentenced to life

The coalition delivers a message of redemption in sermons at some 200 California churches, synagogues and mosques.
By Dana Parsons
May 25, 2009

The major faith traditions teach that the young are special in the eyes of the Almighty. So what does God do when one of them commits a horrible crime and is consigned to a life in prison?

He cries.

That was the message delivered over Memorial Day weekend at some 200 churches, synagogues and mosques around the state by an interfaith coalition trying to change people’s attitudes about long sentences for juveniles — especially those facing life without the possibility of parole.

“When children commit certain actions, we stop thinking of them as children,” Javier Stauring, director of Faith Communities for Families and Children, told a group of about 90 people Sunday at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena. “We start fearing them, we start demonizing them.”

The Bible virtually sanctifies children. That doesn’t change, Stauring suggested, when the legal system tries a young teenager as an adult. While not condoning their crimes, Stauring said a society with redemption in mind would not foreclose a second chance to someone so young.

“It’s a lot easier to lock up a problem and throw away the key and not have to think about it, and to think that’s going to make us safer,” he said. What will make society safer from young criminals, Stauring said, is going after the “layers of woundedness” that often afflict them — wounds that may stem from violence or abuse.

In an interview before he spoke Sunday, the 47-year-old Stauring said he met his first juvenile inmate 18 years ago while volunteering through his church. Now a lay chaplain, Stauring said he wasn’t particularly religious when he volunteered.

“I now consider that a blessing,” he said of the experience. “I formed my vision of God. We find him in the fringes. That’s where, if we look at Jesus as a model, that’s who he hung around with.”

Stauring shared the microphone Sunday with Elias Elizondo, who took a plea bargain 16 years ago on a murder charge that got him a sentence of 15 years to life instead of life without parole. Now 32 and living in Sun Valley, Elizondo was paroled four months ago and said he’s a different person than he was at 16.

“I don’t justify my actions,” he said, without explaining the details of the crime. He told the group that he not only deserved prison but that, at the time, he wasn’t sure he ever should be released. Only when he matured, he said, did he realize that he could change course. Instead of blaming other people or his education, which stopped at sixth grade, he set out to improve himself.

“I started thinking, ‘Is it possible I could turn my life around?’ ”

The answer, Elizondo said, was yes. “The parole board gave me a chance when it didn’t have to,” he said. “I was redeemable.”

Elizondo is the kind of person Stauring’s group wants to reach. The coalition is advocating for state Senate Bill 399, which would permit anyone under 18 sentenced to life without parole to ask for resentencing after serving 10 years. If the inmate met certain conditions, he or she could be eligible for a new sentence of 25 years to life.

Even that seemingly small window, Stauring said, would give hope to the still-young person.

The coalition’s efforts are aligned with Human Rights Watch, an international organization that has called on Congress to end life-without-parole sentencing for young offenders. “Sentencing juveniles to die in prison is cruel, costly and unnecessary,” the organization’s U.S. program director said this month.

The group reported that at least 2,574 inmates in the United States were sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed before the age of 18. California has 250 of them. The United States is the only country that imposes such harsh sentences on juveniles.

Stauring knows the statistics but said the holy books of Christianity, Judaism and Islam are his references on the subject.

“This comes from our faith convictions,” he said, “that we should never ever give up on a child — children are always changing — and that we should not look at them and declare that the worst thing they did as a child is how we’re going to label them for the rest of their lives.”

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