“It was a blessing to be invited to the Convening and to meet so many people committed to this work. I plan to stay involved with this group of people until we bring about the change we all so desperately desire. I never imagined that the simple act of forgiveness would lead me to the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth and new friends of like minds who will last a lifetime. May we all be blessed along the journey.” – Lynette Grace

Last month, we hosted our most widely attended annual national convening to date in Washington, DC. We gathered together an incredibly diverse field of over 125 participants from 28 states to share strategies, build new relationships, and strengthen our movement to end life without parole for children. We were joined by parole board members, state legislators, former law enforcement officials, litigators, formerly incarcerated individuals, family members of loved ones serving life sentences, and family members of victims to youth violence. The conversations were sobering, emotional, empowering, inspiring, productive. Where else would a parole board chair, the president of a correctional association, and a recently paroled individual speak on the same panel? The convening provided a unique opportunity to utilize the diverse experiences in the room to inform our strategies going into 2017.

“The convening energizes me to do the work of abolishing life without parole for children. Being with the other family members and the staff of CFSY, along with the beautiful men and women who have grown up in prison and turned their lives around, is like being bathed in love for several days. It means the world to me.” – Linda White, loved one is a victim of a crime committed by a child. 

Our convening opened just one week following one of the most divisive presidential elections in history, so it was particularly appropriate that we began with a plenary on harm, healing, and hope. The panel featured the personal journeys toward forgiveness two parents who both lost loved ones to youth violence have taken, as well as the experiences of remorse and hope from three formerly incarcerated individuals. These presentations are what make the Convening such an invaluable experience. Each of our workshops and plenaries blended professional experience with personal testimonies that grounded our discussions in the context of the people whose lives are directly impacted by youth violence and the extreme sentencing of children.

“I am grateful that the Campaign invited me to take part in this year’s convening. I value the visits we made to Congressional offices and the opportunity I was given to serve on a panel and share my knowledge of the parole process. Nonetheless, the greatest gift of this convening was being able to spend time with others who, like me, were once serving JLWOP and were afforded a second chance. Each one of these individuals is a shining example that no child is born bad and so many of us have unlimited potential waiting to be realized. We shared our experiences and success with each other, and we look forward to supporting one another moving forward.” – Andrew Hundley, sentenced to life without parole as a teen and released as a result of the Supreme Court decisions in Miller and Montgomery. 

Our conversations ranged from technical discussions about parole to prioritizing racial justice and utilizing social media to strengthen advocacy campaigns. Our discussions were led by renowned figures in their respective fields – such as Steven Drizin, co-founder of the Center on the Wrongful Convictions of Youth, and Sheryl Ranatza, the Chairperson of the Louisiana Parole Board – as well as by individuals directly impacted by the extreme sentencing of youth.

“Being a part of the national convening each year is extremely important to me. It strengthens my resolve and reminds me that we have made tremendous progress. This year I was especially encouraged by the large constantly growing group of formerly incarcerated youth that have returned home and have become a part of  theCFSY family, dedicating their lives to eliminating JLWOP. They are the ultimate proof that no child is born bad and no child is beyond redemption and rehabilitation.” – Anita Colon, sister of someone serving life without parole in Pennsylvania. 

I am deeply grateful to all who traveled to be with us, those who shared their ideas, and most especially, those who shared their personal stories. We left energized, enlightened, and excited about doubling down our efforts to end extreme sentences for children. Together, we will end the practice of sentencing our children to die in prison. Onward! Jody Kent Lavy Executive Director The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth