Working together to repair the soul of our nation

As we reflect on our work together this year, we consider the words of Nelson Mandela, the freedom fighter and former president of South Africa: “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”

What, then, can we say about the soul of the United States?  We are the only country in the world that sentences our children – our most vulnerable population –  to die in prison.  These final, irrevocable judgments continue despite a trio of U.S. Supreme Court rulings that children are categorically different from adults and should not be subject to our nation’s harshest punishments. The sentences continue despite adolescent development research documenting that children do not have the same ability as adults to think through the long-term consequences of their actions or resist pressure from peers or older people and they have a unique capacity to change. We have made strides in recent years to scale back extreme sentences for children and there is more work to do.

As we look to 2014, we anticipate new challenges in state legislatures where many policymakers seek to implement measures that fail to fulfill the spirit or letter of last year’s Miller v. Alabama ruling, which found that it is unconstitutional to impose a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole for a crime committed as a child. We will continue to partner with our colleagues on the ground to obtain meaningful reforms that hold children accountable for their crimes, provide them with opportunities for rehabilitation, and check back in on them later to see if they are ready to be reintegrated into society.

We also expect significant more courts to weigh in regarding whether the Miller decision should be applied to the approximately 2,500 people already serving these sentences or only to those who faced with this punishment after June 2012 when the ruling was issued. We believe that it is fundamentally unfair for the date when a person was sentenced to determine whether or not they will die in prison for a crime committed when they were a child.

In the midst of these challenges, we are heartened by and hopeful because of the broadening movement for reform. More policymakers, opinion leaders and national organizations have expressed their support for change. Many of them joined with directly impacted individuals for our recent Healing & Hope awards reception and for our annual convening, where we celebrated our successes and set a course for the future.

During the South African revolution, the people directly impacted were the leaders and on the front lines working to ensure the injustice of apartheid was ended. So too are formerly incarcerated youth and the family members of children sentenced  to life without parole, and family members of victims of youth violence leading the charge for reform of our sentencing laws.As we celebrate the life and legacy of President Mandela, who died last week, we are excited to continue our work alongside these remarkable individuals and in partnership with you to make sure the United States treasures all of its children, even those who make serious mistakes.

Thank you for all you do to ensure our society is one that focuses on our children’s potential to do great things rather than one willing to discard them for life based on their greatest failures.

Warmest wishes for a peaceful holiday season and New Year,

Jody Kent Lavy

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