by Fr. Dave Kelly, c.pp.s., Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation
I have to testify at a resentencing hearing for a young man I have known for 24 years, which is also how long he has been imprisoned. At the age of 14, he was arrested, tried as an adult and received a mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole. Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruling against mandatory life for juveniles and the Illinois Supreme Court holding it retroactive in the state of Illinois, those given mandatory life sentences as minors (approximately 80 in Illinois) have to be resentenced.
I need to testify to his transformation—how he has changed. I can speak to his writings and the fact that he, for the last 18 of his 24 years, has been a model prisoner. I can speak to the man I know now as a kind and caring human being—not because of prison, but in spite of prison. I can speak to a person who, in spite of the horrific place of prison in the United States, has found the strength to reach out to other youth who are in danger of falling victim to the streets.
As I prepare for court, I struggle, though, with how to measure transformation: it is not something easily quantified. It is difficult to measure ways in which someone has changed.
It is easier to count the wrongs and the missteps. Prison does not give tickets for good behavior—only bad.
As Christians, we have just celebrated Easter; the lilies are still looking pretty good. Yet the crucifixion is always a storyline away. Just in today’s paper: “2 killed, 6 wounded across the city.”
The crucifixion of Jesus was done in the middle of the day—in daylight—for the entire world to see. It was a show of power, and proclaimed the myth of Jesus as traitor and blasphemer. While the crucifixion was a public event, the resurrection of Jesus was during the darkness of early morning; few, if any, were witnesses. Yet, the Resurrection is precisely the lasting event in our memory. Death continues, but it has lost its finality. The truth is that in the dark of that early morning, with few witnesses, Christ gave us new life. It is that truth, that story, which we embrace as central to our faith.
The United States has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prisoners. We cling to the myth that those who are committing the crimes are the ones who are locked up. But the truth is it is not so much guilt or innocence that leads to incarceration, but whether one is poor or a minority: black youth are seven times more likely to go to prison than white youth. The statistics tell us they are no more likely to commit crimes than other ethnic groups.
At the core of Catholic Social teaching is the dignity of each person, including people who have violated the law and harmed others. Acknowledgement of that truth places limits on extreme punishment and inflicting pain for the sake of causing pain on offenders. It also requires treating offenders as moral agents responsible for their wrongdoing, but who are also capable of change and transformation.
At the resentencing hearing of Adolfo Davis, I will argue that people can and do change. I will speak to what I have experienced in knowing Adolfo for these last 24 years. I will testify to what I have witnessed over the course of those years—that he has changed from a confused 14 year-old boy to a man with positive goals and actions. To speak in favor of a second chance for an offender need not put me at odds with those who are victims of crime. The state of Illinois will no doubt argue this to be the case. But my experience and my deep belief is that we can hold up the dignity of both victim and offender as our brothers and sisters. To discount that possibility seems to deny the core of our Christian tradition. It is my belief that our spirituality calls us to step up and challenge the myth that those in our prisons are sinners, mis-steppers and unworthy and incapable of redemption.
So we pray that stones be rolled back, myths destroyed and that kids sentenced at ages 14-15 to life without parole will know a people that will not count only their missteps but rather welcome them back into the community.