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Is It Just Another Tuesday?

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Today is a Tuesday. Most Tuesdays I, along with many other Americans, wake up and carry on with our day as we would on most any other day -- stretching in bed, walking sleepily to the bathroom to shower and get dressed, having a quick bite of breakfast and on to what we may not consider to be a luxury, but is -- going to school or work or tending the task list for the day. In essence, we are simply enjoying our freedom to live; to make choices and mistakes as we go about the business of doing what we need and want to do, actively creating our lives and our futures as we go along.

Today in Washington, D.C., however, something else far more important than our focus on our individual happiness and survival is occurring; something that indicates whether we, as a society, have matured and evolved enough to be fair and nurturing to our children; something that heavily impacts the spirit of democracy and justice, how it is executed in our country and how it shapes our hearts and minds and future moving forward. Today the Supreme Court hears the cases of two young men, Evan Miller and Kuntrell Jackson, who were sentenced to die in prison as 14-year-old children.

The United States is the only country in the world where children under the age of 18 are sentenced to die in prison. The Court will decide in these cases whether life-without-parole sentences for children violate the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution, which prohibits "cruel and unusual" punishment. In a 54-year-old Supreme Court case, {(Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86, 100-01 (1958)] the court determined that "evolving standards of decency mark the progress of a maturing society" and should be used when determining cruel and unusual punishment. This often cited precedent has been used by the courts to define "standards of decency" at home and abroad.

For example, the evolving standard of decency now is that all nations forbid sentencing children under the age of 18 to die in prison. The U.S. is currently not adhering to those standards, thus attorneys representing these young men are petitioning the court to change the law. Sounds like a logical request, right? Then why are we, in this day and age, so alone in this stance?

The United States is not only the only country in the world that sentences children under the age of 18 to die in prison, but also has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. In this country, 2.3 million people are in prison and 7 million people are on parole. How does the most industrialized nation in the world perform so poorly -- socially, educationally and, most recently, economically? How did we get so out of step with the rest of the world -- not in a positive life affirming way, but in a way that identifies us as increasingly emotionally ignorant and socially behind the times? Did the founding "fathers" of this great nation take for granted that with the passing of time, all things, including people, evolve?

It is rare for a young person being raised in poverty, dysfunction and abuse to reach maturity unscathed by psychological trauma. Many of these children are tried as adults and sentenced to die in prison by a system that does not consider their age, circumstances or the conditions of their brains at the time they participate in crimes. They often grow up with trauma and abuse and distinctively illustrate they do not understand the ramifications of their actions. Sentencing any child to die in prison is the ultimate expression of hopelessness. It denies what we know to be true about children: that they will change. I know this as a successful adult who was affected by the dysfunction, violence and abuse in my home and community, who made severe mistakes in judgment throughout my adolescence and early adulthood which harmed me and those around me and could have landed me in jail or the grave, but instead spring boarded me into a life of supporting the rights and redemptive journey of others. I was able to do this because I was given, by the grace of God, an opportunity to explore, mature, grow and develop connections to positive people and influencers.

If the Supreme Court votes against changing the law which allows a child under the age of 18 to be sentenced to die in prison, should we consider that a de-evolution in human character and a disarming of our collective brain power could be occurring in our society today? If this is so, what can we do to turn things around in a way that, ultimately, shifts the downward trajectory of our emotional and social intelligence nationwide?

We must stand up and be heard, demand that we, as a nation, develop a culture of understanding and compassion for all, especially our youth, many of whom grow up in poverty and dysfunction without the support of a healthy, stable family and effective, nurturing educational system. I have seen time and again, young people who were born into abusive circumstances and forced to develop unhealthy survival mechanisms, turn their lives around to become productive members of society. Don't we all deserve that chance? Aren't we all enhanced, our lives made bigger and more meaningful, when we reach out to support those who may need a helping hand in their greatest hour of need?

The Court should find that Evan Miller, Kuntrell Jackson and many other young people who were sentenced to die in prison as children cannot be deemed beyond hope of rehabilitation. Kids can, and do, change. They should be given the opportunity to do so. Speak out against this homegrown atrocity and raise the standards of decency in our country today, so we might have a brighter, more compassionate, intelligent society and future tomorrow.

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