There have been interesting recent events both nationally, and for me personally. First of all, the Supreme Court held hearings concerning Juvenile Life Without Parole in two very important cases. The question is whether or not JLWOP can be imposed when held against the constitutional standard of "Cruel and Unusual Punishment". These are very important cases and the Justices are faced with a difficult decision.
Secondly, there has been much publicity surrounding these hearings and many organizations and media have taken advantage of this time to publicize their views (www.endjlwop.org). I recently had the privilege of hearing a young man named Dwayne Betts (A Question of Freedom Penguin Publishing) speak. It is not the first time I have heard his story, but this speech was even more compelling. He told the story of how he landed in prison, what he did to further himself in prison through the influence of other inmates, and what he has become outside of prison. Most looked at him as some kind of hero and he doesn't like that. He wanted everyone to know that he was not special, he was not the exception, he was just lucky enough to receive a sentence that afforded him a life after prison. He wanted us to know that inside prison walls there are men just like him. They made mistakes, they caused harm and they are sorry. They are sorry. They don't have the chance that Dwayne had. Most will die in prison.
I got to hear Clarence Thomas, Speaker of The Colorado House, remark that what we need to start providing is a way of redemption. "When one of our children is beyond reach, we have failed as adults". And another quote that was equally as provoking "It is easier to raise good children than to repair broken men. "
I had the opportunity to listen to my very good friend, Mary Ellen Johnson (The Pendulum Foundation), speak to a class at an alternative high school. She made room for me so that I could speak to them as well. Our final statements to these young people were about how much we needed them and that they had the power to change this nation through their voices and their actions.
The final event was an interview that I gave to the Wyoming Kids Count organization that is working on a documentary film for their local PBS station. The documentary is about juvenile justice and juvenile reform. My son's story is very compelling, my thoughts and solutions to reform are not ordinary but my faith in the midst of this argument was the most compelling piece. I met the producer of this program while attending a National Juvenile Justice Network conference in DC this past May.
I have two other great reasons for the advocacy work that I do…..my son and my daughter. I have a son serving 68 years in prison on a conspiracy plea agreement. He went to jail when he was 17. He had never been in trouble with the law, was the savior for many animals, loved to cook, loved me and took wonderful care of his disabled sister, Heidi. None of the investigators for the prosecution or the prosecutors themselves ever looked at who my son was. They only considered the crime that was supposedly committed by his friend. Guilt by association cost him his life.
Regardless of your beliefs or religious practices, I believe that we all have common ground. We all believe in the importance and sanctity of human life. We are talking about our children. Yes some of them have made horrible mistakes that have been very costly. Yes they have broken the law and violated our trust. Yes they have caused harm that cannot be undone and they come to us armed with the only thing they have……I'm Sorry. We don't give them the chance to say it publicly or to make amends for their behavior. We just throw them away. Our we pat the disabled on the head and hope someone finds a place for them in the corners of our society.
Dwayne Betts told the audience that if we would take a look at the lives of these children, we would see brokenness, addiction, abuse, neglect. If we took a look, we could see that they are just human beings in need of intervention, education, direction, support and guidance. We begrudge giving anything to someone who has violated our space or our trust or is needy. Yet it is not only about giving to that person individually. The success of each individual in our community causes our community to be successful. If the poor among us has food, he doesn't have to steal to feed his family. If the poor among us can find work, they don't have to invent ways to care for themselves. If we have families, whether biological or care groups, then there is no need to find security and comfort in gangs
The issue, for me, is where that help comes from. Our governmental policies of the last 20 years have not produced any good fruit. There is a direct correlation between the increase in criminal justice and correctional budgets, and the decrease in educational spending. It now has a name, the school to prison pipeline. If we look at our nation, as a whole, our social policies are expensive, ineffective and outdated. We need a better option. That option is us. We are the answer to the problems of today. As business owners, executives and heads of families, we know how to organize and structure plans, programs and goals that bring success in the future. We are resourceful, inventive and creative. We can accomplish in a year, what it would take our government 10 years to accomplish, if we will take ownership and responsibility for our communities and our nation. We ARE the people.
Before we can accomplish any of these things we must first learn to accept I'm Sorry and let that be enough so that we can move past our anger, our fear and our vindictive actions. We can't afford to continue building these monuments to our failure and we can't afford to continue filling them with discarded lives. Who knows what they could go on to accomplish? Maybe we are holding, in our prisons, the persons who could solve many of our issues…..if they had the chance.