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.