California mother gets busy during Juvenile Justice Week of Faith and Healing

For Esi Mathis of California, the 2012 Juvenile Justice Week of Faith and Healing was the first time she ever spoke publicly about her involvement in the effort to end the practice of sentencing youth to life in prison without parole.

“This is an issue that has been part of my life for a long time,” she said. “The future of this nation depends on how we care for or fail to care for our young.”

The Juvenile Justice Week of Faith and Healing is an annual event that was designed to raise awareness about, and inspire action around juvenile justice policies that undermine our faith. During the week, congregations of all faith traditions unite to educate and advocate on behalf of children, families, and communities impacted by these unjust policies. The week was observed on March 5-11.

Esi, whose son was sentenced to life without parole as a youth, used the week as a time to engage people in her faith community at HRock Church in Pasadena, California. When she approached one of her pastors and told him about the work of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth and the National Family Network to expand the effort nationwide, he asked her to lead a portion of the Wednesday night prayer service. More than 40 people were present as Esi told them about her son and about the practice of sentencing youth to life without parole (JLWOP).\

“I said, ‘this is going to be very difficult for me, but it is something I am very passionate about,’” said Esi. “I asked how many felt their brains were fully developed when they were young teens and, of course, no one raised their hand. I also told them that the United States is the only country that sentences children to life without parole.”

Then Esi and the executive pastors led all of those gathered through about 10 prayers that were compiled as part of a tool kit assembled to assist with observances during the week. They prayed for her son. They prayed that everyone convened by the CFSY to witness the oral arguments in Jackson v. Hobbs and Miller v. Alabama would be able to get into the court. And they expressed their shock that JLWOP sentences exist.

Esi’s activities didn’t stop there. She used a 30-minute segment on a blog talk radio show to discuss the issue and talked about it with colleagues at her place of employment, a Christian nonprofit. She discussed it with flight attendants when flying to Washington, D.C. for the oral arguments, with the shuttle driver and with anyone who would listen. Along the way, people repeatedly told Esi they
didn’t know that children could be sentenced without parole. Several indicated they would like to get involved with working to end the practice. She is now exploring opportunities to speak at other churches regarding the issue.

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In 1987, 16-year-old Antonio Espree, a close friend of his, and an innocent bystander were shot during a drug-related dispute in Ypsilanti, MI. Antonio was the only shooting victim who survived, and he was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for first degree murder. He had only been arrested once before, for running away from home.

Antonio’s troubles began years before the shooting – as a child, he witnessed his stepfather and mother abusing drugs and alcohol. They would often argue, and his stepfather would beat his mother in front of him. Antonio not only felt unsafe in his own home, but he felt unloved; in his neighborhood he found drug dealers and gang leaders who filled that void and had a knack for exploiting and enticing young teenage boys. Those traumatic experiences and negative influences, along with the risk-taking tendencies that come with adolescence, set Antonio on a toxic path. Before he was old enough to contemplate the meaning of life, he was involved in the taking of another, and could have effectively ended his own.

But in prison – and despite his life-without-parole sentence and the exhaustion of all his appeals – Antonio began to mature and make better choices. While in some of Michigan’s worst facilities, he avoided trouble, took college courses, and earned certification in several vocational trades, including culinary arts, business education technology, and dog training. He also created and coordinated programs designed to deter younger inmates from leading destructive lives, and received training from FEMA to be a first responder.

After serving 29 years, 10 months, and 19 days, Antonio walked out of prison as a free adult. He was resentenced and released because of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, but also thanks to the mother of the victim in his case, who advocated for his second chance. She recognized that Antonio was just child who had hardly been given a chance at the time of his offense.

Today, Antonio, a proud member of the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network, often travels and shares his story, and is a passionate advocate for youth sentencing reform. He’s also pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Justice Studies at Arizona State University, and has been volunteering to support families in Puerto Rico who were impacted by Hurricane Maria.