Juvenile justice: Faith groups begin to speak out

The United States sentences more of its citizens under the age of 18 to life without parole than any other major developed nation, and American believers are increasingly viewing juvenile justice — or a lack of justice — as a critical challenge for faith groups. This edition of ReligionLink focuses on this controversial topic.


The numbers offer a stark portrait. There were more than 92,000 juveniles in detention in 2006, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and a 2007 report by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency found that these juveniles are more likely to be nonwhite and from low-income backgrounds, with African-American youths 4.5 times more likely to be detained than white youths for the same offenses.

Moreover, human rights groups say there are more than 2,500 inmates serving sentences of life without parole for crimes committed when they were juveniles, with some states charging minors as young as 10 as adults for serious crimes. That is far more than the numbers in the rest of the world combined, they say.

In May 2010, a divided Supreme Court ruled that juveniles who commit crimes in which no one is killed may not be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The decision, under the Eighth Amendment’s ban against cruel and unusual punishment, voided provisions for such life sentences in 37 states and the District of Columbia.

Only 129 juveniles were found to be incarcerated under those particular circumstances, but Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion that the practice “has been rejected the world over” and “the United States is the only Nation that imposes” the penalty.

The faith community — which, according to critics, has too long ignored this issue — has begun to reframe juvenile justice as a social justice matter. Some have started ministries to at-risk and incarcerated youths, while others are establishing programs based on “restorative justice,” the idea that brings together victims, perpetrators, the community and people of faith to “repair the harm” caused by young offenders. Many are working to support laws that would reform the way juveniles are treated by the courts.

Why it matters

Core teachings of traditional religions focus on mercy, justice and serving the least among us, and the fate of juveniles in trouble with the law is so problematic that a growing number of American denominations say the plight of these children cannot be ignored by people of faith. Juvenile detention centers in many states are also some of the most problem-plagued institutions in the corrections system.

Programs and organizations

  • African-American Juvenile Justice Project

    The African-American Juvenile Justice Project assists African-American children in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. It aims to hold “both the system and the African-American community accountable for the lives of our children.” Attorney Sherri Jefferson founded the project. Contact via her website.

  • Breakaway Outreach

    Breakaway Outreach is a faith-based nonprofit that works with young offenders in a juvenile detention center ministry. It was co-founded by Jimmy Larche, who says his life was changed by faith when he was a teenager in a juvenile detention center.

  • Campaign for Youth Justice

    The Campaign for Youth Justice seeks to prevent youths from being tried as adults. April Turner is the communications and media director.

  • Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth

    The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth is “dedicated to reducing and abolishing the sentencing of any person below the age of 18 to life without the possibility of parole.” Karmah Elmusa is the communications director.

  • Center for Juvenile Justice Reform

    The Center for Juvenile Justice Reform is a project of Georgetown University that seeks to support and reform the current juvenile justice system through a cross-disciplinary approach. Shay Bilchik is founder and director.

  • National Center for Juvenile Justice

    The National Center for Juvenile Justice researches topics relating to juvenile justice. Melissa Sickmund is director.

  • National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges

    The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges is an organization of judges who seek to improve the quality of juvenile justice. Victor Leyba is the media and public relations specialist.

  • National Juvenile Defender Center

    The National Juvenile Defender Center has regional centers around the country and maintains state-by-state data on juvenile justice. Sarah Edwards is the development and communications director.

  • Juvenile Justice Ministries

    The Youth For Christ Juvenile Justice Ministries reaches out to youth in detention centers, group homes, correctional center and more to engage them in “relational outreach.” The ministry emphasizes  spiritual, physical, mental and emotional growth. Contact Jake Bland.

  • Catholic Charities USA

    Catholic Charities USA works in various areas such as adoption counseling, disaster relief, poverty awareness and raising awareness of social issues such as human trafficking and racial inequality. It works to provide aid to people in need and to activate the Catholic population to action.

  • Coalition of Prison Evangelists

    Coalition of Prison Evangelists is a professional service organization for Christians ministering in the field of corrections. Contact through the website.

    Contact: 682-292-8009.
  • Center for Public Justice

    The Center for Public Justice is a Christian-democratic organization dedicated to public policy research, leadership development, and civic education.


Legal resources

  • Supreme Court of the United States

    The official website of the Supreme Court of the United States posts background information about the court, as well as court decisions and arguments.

    Contact: 202-479-3000.
  • United States courts

    The website of the federal judiciary — which includes the U.S. Court of Appeals, district courts and bankruptcy courts — posts court records, judicial statistics and information on judges. Contact through the website.

  • FindLaw.com

    FindLaw.com post links to case law and texts. Contact through the website.

National sources

  • Shakeel Syed

    Shakeel Syed is the executive director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California. In 2006, the council organized a meeting between hajj tour directors and imams leading the pilgrimage and U.S. Customs and TSA officials at Los Angeles International Airport. The council repeated the meeting in 2007 and 2012 as a town hall event open to prospective hajjis as well. They said they have heard from Islamic organizations in other areas interested in sponsoring similar events.

    He participated in February 2010’s Juvenile Justice Week of Faith by visiting incarcerated youths.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Abby Anderson

    Abby Anderson is executive director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, a community-based organization that seeks to reduce the number of youths who go through the juvenile justice system.

  • Fred Anderson

    Fred Anderson is a United Church of Christ minister in Massachusetts who serves on the UCC’s Restorative Justice Task Team. In 2008, he preached a sermon on restorative justice, which included a discussion of juveniles.

  • Robert Listenbee

    Robert Listenbee is chief of the juvenile unit of the Defender Association of Philadelphia and a member of Pennsylvania’s Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice. He is active in the West Oak Lane Church of God.

  • Beth Navon

    Beth Navon is executive director of the Lineage Project in Brooklyn, N.Y., which works with at-risk and incarcerated juveniles through a variety of programs, including yoga. Among its community partners is the Jewish Board of Children and Family Services.

    Contact: 718-408-1492.
  • Laurence Steinberg

    Laurence Steinberg is a psychology professor at Temple University in Philadelphia. His specialties include the adolescent brain and juvenile justice. With Alex Piquero, Steinberg conducted a survey that showed the public is willing to spend more on rehabilitation than on incarceration for juvenile offenders.

In the South

  • Joe Benton

    Joe Benton is a special assistant for faith-base initiatives at the 7th District AME Church of South Carolina. In 2005, the church and the state’s department of juvenile justice signed an agreement to work together to benefit children in the state’s juvenile justice system or at risk of entering it.

    Contact: 803-935-0500.
  • Betty Gernert

    Betty Gernert is a leader of Epiphany Ministry, a Christian ministry to incarcerated youths based in Danville, Ga.

    Contact: 803-935-0500.
  • Tom Gillan

    Tom Gillan is with the Office of Criminal Justice for Catholic Charities of Central Florida. He is part of a three-person team that conducts workshops on recognizing and combating human trafficking for NGOs and nonprofits in Central Florida. The local diocese operates a juvenile justice program through the office.

  • Chuck Lawless

    Chuck Lawless is founder of LifeChange, a Christian mentoring Bible study program for juvenile and adult offenders. It is based in Midland, Texas.

  • Luceia LeDoux

    Luceia LeDoux is program director of public safety and governmental oversight grants for the Baptist Community Ministries of New Orleans. She oversees this Christian nonprofit’s community grants that benefit young offenders and at-risk youths in the New Orleans area.

  • Don Smarto

    Don Smarto is chairman of the Juvenile Justice Ministries Network of Texas, an organization of Christian groups and individuals who work with juvenile offenders. It holds statewide roundtables on juvenile justice issues and is based in Dallas.

  • Charles Staples

    Charles Staples is an evangelical Christian and an attorney in Virginia Beach, Va., who deals primarily in juvenile justice and juvenile advocacy cases.

    Contact: 757-497-2485.

In the Midwest

In the West

  • California Church IMPACT

    California Church IMPACT is the legislative advocacy arm of the California Council of Churches, which supported a state bill that it says would make sentencing for youths fairer. Email through the website.

    Contact: 916-488-7300.
  • Dennis Gibbs

    Dennis Gibbs is director of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles’ Prism ministry, which focuses on “restorative justice” for the incarcerated, including juveniles.

  • Greg Kepferle

    Greg Kepferle is CEO of Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County, Calif. He has testified before a subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives about maintaining and increasing funding for juvenile justice programs.

  • Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest

    Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest has several programs for at-risk youths and juvenile offenders. It is based in Tucson, Ariz. Connie Phillips is CEO and president.

  • Sarup R. Mathur

    Sarup R. Mathur is an associate professor at Arizona State University in Tempe and associate director of the National Center on Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice.

  • Verne Rainey

    Verne Rainey is the program manager for juvenile services for the King County Superior Court, which covers Seattle. Among services provided is a mentoring program pairing juvenile offenders with mentors from area churches.

  • Javier Stauring

    Javier Stauring is director of Faith Communities for Families and Children, which held a Juvenile Justice Week of Faith in Februrary 2010 with events across California.

  • Kimo Uila

    Kimo Uila is director of juvenile justice services for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco. He has a background in faith-based juvenile justice advocacy in that city.

  • Bradley J. Widstrom

    Bradley J. Widstrom is an assistant professor of youth and family ministries at Denver Seminary in Littleton, Colo. The youth and family ministry department offers a master’s degree in youth and family counseling with a focus on at-risk youths.

  • Shannon Wight

    Shannon Wight is associate director of the Youth Justice Campaign of Oregon’s Partnership for Safety and Justice. The campaign is working to keep juveniles out of the justice system and to raise the age at which Oregon youths can be tried as adults in criminal matters.

    Contact: 503-335-8449.

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