Pope responds to children sentenced to life without parole with call for "mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation"

Pope Francis calls for “mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation” in a response to hundreds of letters sent to him from people serving life in prison without the possibility of parole for crimes committed as children. His letter amplifies the leadership and deepening support from diverse partners in the faith community for age-appropriate alternatives to life in prison without parole for children.

“Their stories and their plea that this form of sentencing be reviewed in the light of justice and possibility of reform and rehabilitation moved me deeply,” he wrote.

In late March, the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth (CFSY) sent letters to people serving these extreme sentences, inviting them to write letters to Pope Francis about their experiences. More than 500 people responded with heartfelt letters.

Many spoke about the hope they felt because of the sheer possibility the Pope might care to read their words. Others wrote about the challenge of remaining inspired and motivated after having been told as children they would die in prison. They shared stories of redemption, remorse and transformation, with the leader of the Catholic Church, who has previously expressed his concern for youth in prison.

“Pope Francis, may I please ask you to speak out against this deplorable US policy to sentence children to die in prison?” wrote one person. “I know through my own experiences that children grow. I have grown. I would not ask you to consider doing this if I knew in my heart my life was not different. I pray that you get to read my letter.”

The response from the Pope is important both to the people who wrote to him and the growing movement to replace life-without-parole sentences for children with age-appropriate alternatives.

“Pope Francis’ letter gives hope to, and acknowledges the humanity of, the approximately 2,500 people who were condemned to die in prison as children,” said Jody Kent Lavy, director and national coordinator of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. “His message affirms what we stand for—we are all more than our worst mistake and no child should ever be discarded forever.”

The Pope’s letter comes as more states than ever before are grappling with how to hold young people accountable for serious crimes in light of recent Supreme Court decisions scaling back extreme sentences for children, robust bodies of adolescent development research proving the fundamental differences between children and adults, and the debunking of the superpedator theory, which led to the “tough-on-crime” policies that allow our children in the United States alone to be sentenced to life in prison without hope of ever being released.

The letters were all sent to the CFSY. The CFSY forwarded them to Father Michael Kennedy, S.J., executive director of the Jesuit Restorative Justice Initiative. He, along with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, arranged to have the letters sent to Pope Francis just before Easter. The Pope responded in a May 7 letter to Father Kennedy.

“After seeing so many youth struggle to find and maintain hope after receiving the cruel sentence of life without parole, I am inspired by each one of those who still believe that God, with the help of the prophetic words of Pope Francis, will ensure they have a second chance of being home with their families one day,” said Father Kennedy. “It is my hope (or prayer or other suitable word) that the Pope’s words will lead people of faith to do even more to bring about the changes that can lead us to that day.”

Faith communities have played a key role in the effort to replace sentences of life without parole for children with age-appropriate alternatives. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is among the endorsers of the CFSY’s Statement of Principles. Among the other faith-based organizations endorsing the statement are the United Methodist Church General Board of Church and Society, the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, Church of the Brethren Global Partnerships, Buddhist Peace Fellowship and others.

Read other excerpts from letters to Pope Francis

Read the letter from Pope Francis