This month marks five years since the launch of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. We will commemorate the milestone this year and invite you to join us, as this is really just the beginning.

In February 2009, I was hired as the first staff person of the Campaign. Many advocates, litigators, families and others had already been working for some time to end life-without-parole sentences for children in various parts of the country, so I had the great privilege to learn from and work alongside them.  My task, and that of the Campaign, was to bring these individuals together to coordinate and enhance our strategies and establish a national movement to end this extreme sentence through robust advocacy, litigation, and public education efforts. Building on that foundation, we have solidly established our role as a national coordinator and convener, and helped move reform efforts forward throughout the nation.

In the last five years, we have seen significant successes, thanks to your support and partnership in this work. In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Graham v. Florida that it is unconstitutional to sentence children to life in prison without the possibility of parole for a non-homicide crime. Two years later, the Court ruled that mandatory sentences of life without parole are unconstitutional when imposed upon children.

The notion that “kids are different” from adults is taking hold, and the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled several times in recent years that the unique characteristics of children are constitutionally significant. Legislatures in California, Delaware, Texas, and Wyoming changed their laws to create second chances for children convicted of serious crimes. Several other states have passed laws limiting the use of life-without-parole sentences for children. Before these changes, only one state—Colorado—had taken action to join the states that do not allow the use of this extreme sentence. Last year, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court struck down this most extreme sentence for children, finding it a violation of their state constitution’s ban on cruel or unusual punishment. Today, 16 states either do not allow or do not use life without parole for children, and several other states have passed laws limiting the use of the sentence.

Our movement has grown substantially—in numbers and sophistication—in a short period of time.  We partner with advocates and lawyers in more than two-dozen states where reform efforts are underway. We helped to establish, and work closely with, a national network of families of people sentenced to life in prison without parole as children. We work in collaboration with family members of victims and have developed a broad coalition that includes attorneys from throughout the nation, former prosecutors and judges, faith organizations, conservative organizations such as Right on Crime, and others.

We also have expanded our network of national partners. More than 100 organizations have joined us as official supporters by endorsing our statement of principles, which articulates our vision for holding children accountable in age-appropriate ways.

Policymakers, opinion leaders and editorial pages across the political spectrum have expressed their support for reform. Among them are President Jimmy Carter, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, the New York Times and others.

In just five years, we have grown from a single staff person using a desk at the Human Rights Watch offices to a staff of ten with expertise in litigation, advocacy, communications and community outreach. This year we’ll also bring on our first staff person who was incarcerated in his youth and truly exemplifies growth and change. No one could have predicted we would be here today.

In the years ahead, it is critical to preserve and make meaningful the successes achieved in our first five years and continue the momentum for reform by charting a path toward fair sentences for children. This year we are working in 25 states to bolster advocacy efforts seeking to implement age-appropriate alternatives to death-in-prison sentences for children.  In addition, we are working to ensure that Miller v. Alabama is applied retroactively to the people currently serving these unjust sentences and is used in the courtroom to fiercely defend children facing the possibility of these extreme sentences in the future. We must continue to raise awareness about the United States’ practice of sentencing our children to die in prison and the need for humane alternatives, by sharing the success stories of formerly incarcerated youth and engaging more unlikely allies.

We have come a long way in just five years. We can go ever farther during the next five because, thanks to you, we are a stronger force than ever before.

As we pursue our goals ahead, we hope you will join us by becoming more deeply involved in our work. Here are five concrete ways that you can help move our work forward: make a donation; sign up for our map to show your support; host a fundraiser or friend raiser; spread the word about this movement; or get involved with advocacy.

Together, we will eliminate the practice of sentencing children to die in prison.

Jody Kent Lavy