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They Are All Our Children

They Are All Our Children

She only says a few words, but our friends’ granddaughter Stella has one expression down cold: “Uh-oh.” She says it when she drops a toy on the floor or sees a dog trying to sneak food off the table. She feels the stirrings of guilt - her sense of right and wrong forming in her agile brain. The day we will expect her to be fully responsible for all her actions and their consequences seems far off. After all, she is only a child. On June 25, the Supreme Court ruled that the line between child and adult precludes mandatory life sentences without parole for those under age 18 convicted of murder. The Justices agreed that such mandatory punishment is cruel and unreasonable because the judge or jury must take the age of the defendant into account. Life sentences might still be imposed, but age and circumstance cannot be ignored. As a rabbi, I agree.

Research tells us the brains of young teens are unfinished in ways that make them susceptible to impulse and poor judgment.  Judaism also tells us that teshuvah, repentance, is often possible even for those who have committed violent acts. The younger the person, the more hopeful we are that he or she can experience that internal moral shift toward good. Yet we cannot expect that shift to happen on its own. Juveniles in our prisons need encouragement, role models, therapy and much more. Years ago I attended a graduation ceremony for teens being released from a maximum-security juvenile detention unit. The teens read poetry and essays in which they expressed their regrets and their hopes. They clearly appreciated their second chance and just as clearly feared they would fail once they were back out in the world. I was fearful too: fearful that as a society we would not give them the support they needed to continue to believe in themselves. I applaud the Supreme Court for reminding us not to automatically throw away the key for teens convicted of murder. For some of those teens, life without parole is the correct punishment. For others, we need both a prison system that gives them room to grow into better human beings and a society prepared to assist them when they transition back to the community. They are all our children.

Rabbi Debra Hachen is the rabbi at Temple Beth-El in Jersey City, NJ, and a 2012-2013 Brickner Fellow. Photo at top left courtesy of the Supreme Court.

Published: 7/02/2012

Categories: Social Justice
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