By Doris Benavides
Friday, June 26, 2009
May 24 was the first time in 16 years that David Oropeza celebrated his birthday out of prison walls. He turned 35.
During his young adult years, David was in and out of prison. But two weeks ago, his eyes were wet with happiness as more than 50 parishioners of American Martyrs Church in Manhattan Beach sang "Happy Birthday."
Although spending all those years in prison, David was blessed with freedom, unlike thousands of other young men and women who, as teenagers, have been sentenced to life without a possibility of parole.
Last month's meeting at American Martyrs was held as part of the Juvenile Justice Sabbath, sponsored by Faith Communities for Families and Children (FCFC), a coalition of faith-based organizations, to raise awareness about the increasing numbers of youth who are treated like adults and are incarcerated and sentenced for life without parole in United States prisons.
The U.S. is the only country in the world where this is happening, according to advocates. They are hoping that state legislators will soon discuss and approve the Fair Sentencing for Youth Act SB399, which would allow the review of cases and resentencing of youth who have been incarcerated for more than 10 years and were sentenced to life without parole before the age of 18.
Some 2,574 inmates in the U.S. were sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed before the age of 18, according to Human Rights Watch, as reported recently in the Los Angeles Times. In California there are 250 such cases.
According to FCFC, in 2009 it is projected that California will spend more than 20 times as much per youth in state juvenile facilities than per public school students. In the U.S. about 200,000 youth under age 18 are tried in adult courts.
The Children's Defense Fund, in its report "Cradle to Prison Pipeline," reported an estimated 15,240 youth detained in juvenile correctional facilities in California in 2006. More than 75 percent of these have inadequately-addressed learning disabilities and mental health issues.
A multi-faith issue
During the Juvenile Justice Sabbath, spiritual leaders from about 200 Los Angeles synagogues, mosques, and Catholic churches addressed their congregations about this issue, which affects the entire society directly or indirectly.
"Our children are a priceless gift," Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, told about 300 men and women during his May 22 sermon at the Culver City Mosque.
"My love for my children should be the same for all children. This is the universality bestowed upon us. We should defend and honor the sanctity of our children at any time," he continued.
After providing statistics of children in the U.S. living in poverty, abused and neglected by society, lacking healthcare benefits, lacking the appropriate education and living under the basic nutrition standards, Syed asked the Muslim community to question themselves about where their priorities lie as part of this society.
There are "ethical disparities," he told them after mentioning there are a large number of youth incarcerated for life without parole in the prison system.
"In Wall Street no one has gone to jail, but a child goes because of lack of understanding," he said. He urged the congregation to check the FCFC's Web site to get informed about the issue, to visit and volunteer at places where they can become big brothers or big sisters for at-risk children, and to call their legislators to support the approval of SB399.
"Everyone should get a second chance," he affirmed.
Halima Shad said she was shocked after hearing her spiritual leader. She admitted that she had ignored the entire situation. She recently arrived to the U.S. from Germany, after marrying her American husband. She believes that instead of punishment, these teenagers should receive psychological treatment.
"What they are doing," she said, "is not justice."
"Children are innocent and they need to be protected," Syed told The Tidings after delivering his message.
'It's first about compassion'
"Jesus preached the good news for wholeness and joy," Jesuit Father Greg Boyle, told American Martyrs parishioners during his May 24 evening homily, one of the many homilies that closed the Juvenile Justice Sabbath weekend.
The founder of nonprofit Homeboy Industries, the largest gang intervention program in the U.S, told the packed church there is little possibility of change or justice when people separate from each other due to differences of skin color, or socioeconomic status.
At the same time, though, "God can't take his eyes off his kids," Father Boyle said. "God thinks we are great and reminds us we belong to each other."
After celebrating Mass, he and three former gang members addressed the group of parishioners at the church's O'Donnell Hall.
"If we don't believe that redemption is possible…. That's what Jesus is about," Father Boyle said. "It's not even about second chances, but it's first about compassion, standing in the right place with the poor, with the demonized."
He said everyone is called to work with gangs standing in awe rather than judgment and he stressed the importance of connecting. "If there is no connection, no kinship, it simply won't matter," he said.
"I'm blessed to speak here," said 21-year-old Treybon Thomas, who was locked up at the California Youth Authority at the age of 16. He addressed the parishioners together with Alicia Ruiz, 21, and Oropeza. The three advocated for teenagers who like them were raised in violent and emotionally unhealthy environments.
They are now under the wing of Homeboy Industries, learning to live a healthy lifestyle surrounded by family members, ex-gang members and the community.
The three of them said no change of life can happen inside any detention facility where teenagers are living with adults who take advantage of them.
"When you see them (gang members) on the street, they are scared of you as you are of them," Oropeza told the parishioners. He urged them to reach out to at-risk teenagers. "Don't judge a book by its cover. It sounds like cliche, but it is life today," he said.
He shared how he felt angry after a daughter was killed in a shooting between gangs, "but everybody deserves a chance, even those who killed my daughter," he said.
Acceptance, connection and recognition, were the words used by the three former gang members when asked by a parishioner what are the kind of words someone could use to make a neglected teenager change his/her mind.
"I would say talk with me not to me," said Oropeza. "It's simple as asking, 'How are you? How can I help you? What is your name?'" said the father of five whose wife, Cristina Villalba, works at Homeboy Industries' Homegirl Café.
Oropeza and Villalba are now fulfilling their roles as parents, teaching love to their children, something they lacked in their own youth. Cristina's mother died from an overdose and her husband's father also used drugs.
"My parents never told me they loved me and they did not care if I went to school or not," said Villalba.
"I want to show a better example and break that cycle that runs in our families," Oropeza added.
Javier Stauring, FCFC's director, urged the parishioners to seek information. "The more educated on this issue," he said," the better it is."
For more information about juvenile restorative justice and about the Faith Communities for Families and Children, go to www.fcfcla.org. For more information on SB399, go to www.fairsentencingforyouth.org.