Children should have hope to leave prison - Albuquerque Journal

Children should have hope to leave prison

Sister Helen Prejean

New Mexico is a state with a conscience. In 2009, I stood with advocates, legislators and then-Gov. Bill Richardson as New Mexico abolished capital punishment. I was so grateful the New Mexico Legislature took this thoughtful, critical and moral step forward. But much work remains to ensure New Mexico’s legal system leaves room for rehabilitation and reintegration, especially for those who committed crimes when they were too young to truly grasp the gravity of their actions. Every child is worthy and capable of redemption, but children sentenced as adults in New Mexico still face the grim possibility of never leaving prison.

Since 2021, New Mexico has made progress toward joining the rapidly growing number of states that have abolished life without parole as a sentencing option for children. New Mexico should not miss this opportunity. This year, I hope you will say yes to the hope of mercy and redemption for children by voting “yes” on Senate Bill 64.

Life without parole is, as Pope Francis recently called it, a “hidden death penalty.” By allowing New Mexico’s children to be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole and equivalent sentences, we are literally condemning them to die in prison. We ignore the potential for growth and change that every young person possesses. We say to our children: “It does not matter the ways in which you commit yourself to rehabilitation, healing and accounting for the harm that you caused. Nothing you do matters. You will never be welcomed back. There is no mercy and no hope for you.”

At the same time, we must acknowledge the profound grief and pain experienced by victims of violence and their families. This is not an either-or proposition. Early on in my work against the death penalty, I made the mistake of not reaching out to victims’ families. I learned from Lloyd LeBlanc, the hero of “Dead Man Walking,” whose son was murdered, about the real needs and pressures faced by survivors and victims’ families. They deserve all the resources and support in the world. Too often, we assume that the harshest punishment will make victims’ families whole again. Every survivor or victims’ family has different needs, and this focus on vengeance can obscure opportunities for healing. Accountability is important, but punishment alone will never mend broken hearts.

When a child causes harm, we must join with our communities in mourning alongside those harmed. But we must not forget that within a hurt child is an invitation for redemption. The ultimate practice of justice is to heal those who cause harm, not to harm them further.

I hope this legislative session New Mexico will choose mercy and compassion, not vengeance. I hope New Mexico will choose not to condemn children, no matter how far they may stray, but instead choose to honor the sacredness of life and the promise of a child’s potential. If it does, New Mexico will move closer to a loving God’s vision of justice.

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