03/30/2012 02:04 pm ET Updated May 30, 2012

Lent: A Reflection on the Sin of Juvenile Life Without Parole Sentencing

Jesuit priest Greg Boyle published a fine opinion piece on March 19, 2012 in the National Catholic Reporter, a glorious sketch of a man the "system" failed to get best of -- one Louis Perez, a man turned around with the help of God, women and men working together in not too mysterious ways. Do yourself a favor and read about Perez.

This week the Supreme Court will hear two cases, Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, both of which question the constitutionality of Juvenile Life Without Parole (JLWOP) sentences in homicide cases. The United States is the only nation in the world that regularly sentences juvenile offenders to life without parole.

In his recently published Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, Father Boyle who runs Homeboy Industries, the largest gang-intervention and re-entry program in the country, describes his experiences helping young people in Los Angeles gangs to turn their lives around, and in the process, he throws a voluminous shadow of doubt over almost everything we might assume about juvenile crime.

Boyle's experience suggests that not only can a 14-year-old kid found guilty of horrendous crime change, but that with the proper support, such a child is naturally disposed to change. The kind of "conversions" Boyle describes are not quite so unimaginable as we might -- imagine -- because juvenile offenders, like juvenile non-offenders, have immense capacity for change. Why? Because children in general have immense capacity for change.

We often fear (and conclude) that children who commit violent crimes in youth are beyond hope, but the truth is that because they are children, because children are malleable and resilient, juvenile offenders are well within the reach of hope if they have the proper kinds of interventions.

As the mother of three adolescent children, I can see why this might be true. Flux is the natural default mode of children in their teens. It is the developmental occupation and urge of all children to seek to become something other than what they are, and often the burning desire for transformation, the longing to become "somebody" is what leads children down self-destructive paths.

I am reading Tattoos in the Heart during the season of Lent, so it's hard not to see the experience of children incarcerated for committing (indeed terrible) crimes as reflections of Christ the prisoner. When a life sentence stands between a child and redemption, it's a cross of sorrow we all bear. When we adults allow the penalty -- and not the potential for transformation -- to get the best of an imprisoned child, we all lose.

This is not merely unjust; it's a recipe for disaster. When we incarcerate a 14-year-old child --when we tell him prison will be his home for the rest of his life -- we commend him to a life of transgression. We foreclose on any opportunity that child might one day have to become something more than the adult we (erroneously) try him as. As dehumanizing and backwards as our penal system is, we still see men and women manage to rise above their experience as prisoners. To disqualify a person from such redemption while he is still a child is a grave transgression.

In the first few pages of Tattoos on the Heart, we learn that one of the first steps Father Boyle took as he got his Homeboys ministry off the ground was to open a school. This, in response to having noticed that most of the kids gathering in his parish had been bounced out middle school. I suspect that most of the kids gathered in Father Boyle's parish hall were intelligent enough, mostly poor, and Latino or black.

If they were poor, Black or Latino, chances are what little education they received was delivered via a public education system mired in institutional racism that tended to be slightly more forgiving of girls, than of boys. It's likely that a disproportionate number of them were victims of cumulative educational malpractice and that many (most?) had been socially promoted. It's a good bet that many of the "homeboys" Father Boyle inherited were were done with school by 6th or 7th grade and unable, therefore, to read and do math. (What sentence should all the law-biding adults who served as accessories to this educational malfeasance receive?) Within the first few pages of Boyle's Tattoo on my Heart, we also learn that the boys in street gangs all wanted jobs. What happens when illiterate teenaged boys of color who are done with school realize they can't get jobs?

Hearing and reading some powerful testimony relating to sentencing and the treatment of prisoners recently has ignited my interest in prison reform, but I think the greater catalyst is all I remember of working with teenagers and young adults as a teacher in New York City classrooms. One can't knock around the NYC public school "system" for long without developing opinions about of the prison "system," because New Yorkers know, almost as a given or a fait accompli, that a significant percentage of our lowest performing black and brown male students are headed for jail. Kids with no hope turn to crime. Kids who feel stupid turn to crime. Kids who feel powerless turn to crime.

In New York City, we are often told that gangs are the reasons schools fail. I happen to believe gangs thrive because schools fail.

So why do gangs succeed? What do street gangs provide? Gangs offer the illusion of order, community, meritocracy and protection -- the very stuff and scaffolding schools should provide. When children find themselves with no real prospects, and without mind and spirit capable enough to allow for envisioning hope, their choice to join street gangs should not surprise us.

One of the reasons that schools are failing is that they no longer teach students how to read. Books have wings -- aspiration, imagination and yearning are part and parcel of genuine literacy. Children who are the victims of institutional racism and educational malpractice never quite learn to drive their imaginations in the direction of hope. They don't learn to dream. Taxpayers can carp all they like, saying parents ought to teach their kids to hope and dream at home. Perhaps they should. But what if they don't?

We can empower those, like Father Boyle, who are willing to catch these kids when they fall and help them turn around ("conversion"). We can recognize that It is cheaper and nobler to turn a 14-year-old boy into a productive gentleman than to lock him up for the rest of his life. In some cases, all it takes is a village civilized enough to see that sentencing a child to die in prison is a grievous sin.