I watched a documentary about 2 years ago on one of the international TV news channels. It was about the American juvenile justice system. Typically I don’t believe everything I watch on TV because I know it is never the whole story, it is just a story as wide as the camera lens are and as true as the reporter’s perspective and opinions. Being that as it may, this documentary just caught my attention and from what I saw I could tell the deep society issues it brought to the surface.
The documentary was about minors who committed violent crime and were sentenced to life imprisonment. It particularly followed the life of one guy (let’s call him Miguel) who was jailed when he was 16 years old for being an accomplice in a murder. Miguel and his two friends decided to rob a convenience store; his friends went into the shop and he was the driver of their getaway car, which they had stolen. It was supposed to be simple, get in, get the cash and disappear but there were unwelcome modifications to the script.
The shop owner did not resist the robbery but he was still shot dead by one of Miguel’s friends. Miguel couldn’t believe he heard the two shots as his friends ran out and screamed at him to speed off. All of them ended up being caught a few days later because there was an eye witness across the street. Miguel was tricked into a deal with the prosecutors and he confessed to taking part in the robbery. He got life in prison, and his friends somehow got less than ten years. By the time of the documentary he was about 35 years old, having served about 19 years in prison. He got life behind bars, while the friend who pulled the trigger got less punishment.
The victims’ families
Here is the interesting part that was covered in the documentary; there was a public inquiry about juvenile convictions in that state in the US and they were considering abolishing life imprisonment for minors. This meant that Miguel’s case could be re-examined and he would have a chance of being set free since he was jailed as a minor. Many families of the victims testified against the release of the minors, even for those who had served more than 20 years and had reformed, arguing that it would bring back the painful memories of their loss, that it would hurt them and they couldn’t deal with it.
That really got me thinking, and I am really careful here not to come out as insensitive to them, but for many years those families had not been able to deal with their loss. They reasoned that if you commit an adult crime you deserve an adult punishment, which seems like sensible reasoning, but is there an amount of punishing these minors that would bring comfort to them? What really do these families need?
It is sad to say that what we see here are families deep in need of healing and whose interpretation of justice is ‘make them suffer’. I am afraid to say that some of those families may be in a worse prison than Miguel and the other minors.
For Miguel, the family of the man they killed testified for the abolition of the life sentence for minors. Miguel had written a letter to that family from prison asking for forgiveness. The niece of the deceased forgave him and even visited him in prison. What a great example of forgiveness from this family.
Miguel was a reformed man who was highly recommended for release by the prison administration. He had trained and become a preacher in prison. He even married his childhood sweetheart in a ceremony that was held in prison. His wife used to visit him in prison and had supported him ever since he was jailed at 16 years old.
While awaiting the decision by the state on juvenile life sentences this is what he said ‘All am asking for is mercy, am asking for a second chance, I have grown so much and I do feel like I am ready to be free again. At the same time I have peace with how God is using me here and the opportunities to serve others here. If I spend the rest of my life here, then that’s what my life will be’
The state judicial committee voted against future life sentences for minors but denied retrial for those minors who had been sentenced to life in prison before 2014. Sad as it may sound, it means that Miguel is still in prison up to now. To the lawyers out there, I understand the law is the law and it has to be followed to the letter but we also know the law isn’t always about justice, sometimes it is about power, having the baton that can be used to keep the society in check for whatever reasons.
In the documentary, one proponent for the abolition of life sentences for minors said this, ‘How we treat those who break our laws, how we treat those who are in prison is really a reflection of how we are as a society. We should have a concept that there is redemption and rehabilitation and we should structure a system that tries to get them there as soon as possible.’To bring it close home, how we treat our enemies (those who wrong us), not our friends, is the true test of our Christianity.
Like most of us, the families in the story above are in real need of healing. Healing is a word that gets thrown around a lot but only finds true meaning when we are able to experience it ourselves. I am not talking about medical healing, neither am I talking of meditation or some kind of ‘freeing your mind’. The healing I refer to is like uprooting a tree and leaving no roots underneath. It is freedom like letting go and knowing you will land safely. It is supernatural, spiritual, divine transformation that I believe can only be prescribed by the great physician Himself.
You may have suffered injustices, heartbreaks and emotional hurts and you are wondering how you would find that healing. ‘It sounds so good but how do I get it for myself?’ Well, God has offered it to us. We just need to ask him in faith and receive it. Here are a few verses for you: 1 Peter 5.10 After we have suffered, God of all grace will restore, confirm strengthen and establish you; Psalms 34:18 The lord is near the broken-hearted and saves the crushed spirit; Psalms 147.3 He heals the broken hearted and binds up their wounds; 2 Cor 12.9 His grace is sufficient for us, for his power is made perfect in our weaknesses; Psalms 23.3 He restores my soul.
The verses may be shorter here for our purpose so please explore them more in their contexts.
I don’t know about you but I believe these promises because they were not said by a politician but by the one who keeps his word and esteems it above His own name. God is able. He healed me of an emotional wound I carried for many years after being hurt by someone close to me. God actually wants to show himself strong in your weakness, He wants to restore you. Believe it and ask for it.
Just like pen goes with paper, healing goes very well with forgiveness. James 5:16 Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another that you may be healed. We confess our sins because we are guilty of them and we seek forgiveness. I have a feeling that this is where many of us are stuck. Most of us have been pardoned millions but somehow find it hard to pardon others of hundreds they owe us.
So what does all this have to do with justice? One of the most fundamental claims of the Christian faith is that we serve a God who is just as recorded in 1 Thess 1.6. In Isaiah 9.7 it says that Jesus will rule in justice and righteousness. Col 3.25 says there will be no partiality, the wrong doer will be paid back for the wrong he has done. Isaiah 61.8 For I, the lord, love justice… Psalms 9.8 and he judges the world in righteousness, he judges the peoples with equality.
It is extremely difficult for us to imagine a kingdom where justice prevails because we have lived in none before but we can believe that our God only does what is RIGHT. When we believe Him, He heals us because that is RIGHT. He keeps his promises because that is RIGHT.
That means that for the injustices we suffer, the atrocities we witness, the disasters people cause, someone will eventually have to answer. Seeking justice means seeking the one who is just; it means forgiving, seeking healing, moving on and believing that He can handle it. It is resting assured that true justice will one day be administered and everyone will feel it. It is holding on to that promise that our God will eventually make things right.