Until a SCOTUS (US Supreme Court) decision (Miller v Alabama) two years ago, some states, including Pennsylvania, made the sentence of life without parole “mandatory” in many felony cases. When SCOTUS said that making such a sentence mandatory for youth was unconstitutional, cruel and unusual punishment, Pennsylvania’s legislators and our Commonwealth’s Supreme Court decided that the decision did not affect the over 500 people in Pennsylvania Prisons who were already incarcerated with a life sentence since they were under the age of 18. Earlier this year SCOTUS made another decision which says that their earlier decision is to be applied retroactively, and therefore must apply to these prisoners. As a result, these 500+ people are the subject of a variety of adjustments coming from the Department of Corrections, District Attorneys, legislators, and activists, and have some degree of hope for reconsideration of their cases.
We are taught to pray saying “…forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” But, does that imply a connection between forgiving and being forgiven? And is there a meaning to the communal use of “OUR trespasses”, “WE forgive THOSE”, and “against US?” Certainly there is a call in our faith to a radical sense of forgiveness. Yet, we struggle to survive in the midst of community violence, abuse and war. Victims of violent crime and war are understandably angry and hurt. The impossibility of easy solutions always leaves us in the need of forgiveness.
But, the over 500 Pennsylvanians given the sentence of “life without parole” while they were younger than the age of 18 represents 20% of the over 2,500 individuals so incarcerated in the USA. And that means that they represent around 20% of the world’s population of individuals sentenced in their youth to die in prison. Are the children of Pennsylvania that much worse than the children in the rest of the world?
In March the Diocese of Pennsylvania, along with many faith and community related organizations around our nation, will celebrate the “Juvenile Justice Month of Faith and Healing.” It is a time to study the issue of how youth are treated in our nation’s and our community’s criminal justice systems, what we can do to provide better safety and education for our youth, and to pray for forgiveness. May God forgive us as we forgive, and may the walls that separate us from our children come tumbling down.