Welcome to the conversation!

Welcome to the conversation!

Harriet Beecher Stowe's (1811-1896) best-selling anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), made her the most famous American woman of the 19th century and galvanized the abolition movement before the Civil War.

The Stowe Center is a 21st-century museum and program center using Stowe's story to inspire social justice and positive change.

The Salons at Stowe programs are a forum to connect the challenging issues (race, gender and class) that impelled Stowe to write and act with the contemporary face of those same issues. The Salon format is based on a robust level of audience participation, with the explicit goal of promoting civic engagement. Recent topics included: Teaching Acceptance; Is Prison the New Slavery; Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North; Creativity and Change; Race, Gender and Politics Today; How to be an Advocate

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Friday, May 30, 2014

"Juvenile Life Without Parole" by 2014 Student Stowe Prize winner Madeline Sachs

Madeline Sachs of University of Chicago Laboratory High School (Chicago, IL) will be awarded the 2014 Student Stowe Prize high school award for her speech, “Juvenile Life Without Parole” presented at Beth Emet Synagogue (Evanston, IL). Read her award-winning entry below to learn about her advocacy on juvenile life without parole and her call to action.

The community and student activists are invited to join the Stowe Center for Inspiring Action: Real Stories of Social Change, a free public program at Immanuel Congregational Church preceding the Big Tent Jubilee. The program will include an Inspiration to Action Fair with Hartford-area activists and organizations from 3:00-4:00pm, and a panel discussion from 4:00-5:30pm. The panel will feature a dialogue with Student Stowe Prize winners Madeline Sachs and Donya Nasser, JoAnn H.Price of Fairview Capital, and Patricia Russo of the Women’s Campaign School at Yale University. The conversation will be moderated by WNPR's John Dankosky. RSVPs are strongly encouraged and can be made by emailing Info@StoweCenter.org or calling 860-522-9258, ext. 317.

Good Evening.

As you may or may not know, this week recognizes a week of faith and healing for juvenile justice across the nation. The Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation in Chicago initiated this special week, which is a call to all religious leaders and congregations to take time to recognize juvenile justice issues affecting us today. Juvenile Justice is a topic that is very important to me, and when I asked Rabbi London to speak tonight, I wanted to tell you about a problem you may not know too much about – one that often does not hit the front page of the daily news. The more we understand about the issues kids face in our community, in Chicago and across the country, the better we will be able to make a difference in the lives of those around us.

I originally became interested in juvenile justice over two years ago, in 8th grade, when my class studied the constitution at school. At the time, the death penalty was of particular interest to me, which I’ll admit was sort of strange at my age, but over the last couple of years, I have explored constitutional and criminal justice issues more, and I have become more interested in another related topic: Juvenile Life Without Parole. This past September, my mom was invited to a panel where two lawyers from Northwestern’s Bluhm Legal Clinic spoke on the issue, and she took me. Despite being the only one there under the age of 30 and having the lawyers consistently refer to kids as impulsive and immature, their speeches truly inspired me, and that is part of what I hope to do here tonight.

Juvenile Life Without Parole is an issue that affects kids under the age of eighteen across the United States and especially in the Chicagoland area. Basically, children and teens under the age of 18 can be sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole. This ignores the fact that an adolescent mind is underdeveloped and more susceptible to influences such as peer pressure, gang violence, and unstable homes or neighborhoods, to name a few. Kids may be able to act on whim, but are not able to make good judgments about their actions and the consequences that will follow. Teens cannot vote, drink, buy cigarettes, and many cannot even drive, but they can be sentenced as young as the age of 13 to die in prison. That’s pretty surprising when you think about it. My sister, who just had her Bat Mitzvah, could be sentenced to life without parole. I firmly believe this is wrong -­‐ and not just in the case of my sister. It seems like a clear violation of the eighth amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. In fact, no other modern country in the world sentences kids to this harsh of a punishment, and yet, as Americans, we consider ourselves at the forefront of human rights. Nationally, there are around 2400-­‐2500 people serving a Juvenile Life Without Parole sentence, 100 of which are in Illinois alone. Adolescents are sentenced to Juvenile Life Without Parole for anything from homicide to simply driving the car away with the armed robber. Think about it. If you even bought the gun for your friend, knowing what he or she was about to do, and the police find out, at age 13 you could be sentenced to die in prison, with no chance of parole regardless of rehabilitation or behavioral changes. I personally look back on things I did months and even weeks ago and think, why? Granted the mistakes I make are not as serious, it still goes to show that kids make mistakes and deserve a second chance.

Since I felt so strongly about this issue after hearing the lawyers speak, I decided that I wanted to get involved. I’ve been working with the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern’s Bluhm Legal Clinic where the two lawyers work that I mentioned, and I have been working with the Outreach Coordinator there to raise awareness at my school. At the clinic, there are lawyers who are working to get Juvenile Life Without Parole sentences overturned and raise awareness for this little-­‐known flaw in the criminal justice system. One of the cases they are working on is that of Jacqueline Montanez, the only woman in Illinois serving this sentence. At age 15, in 1993, she was convicted along with two others, of murdering rival gang members. She is now 36, and still sentenced to die in prison. She was tried in adult court because of the seriousness of the crime, not juvenile court where many factors such as her age, susceptibility to outside influences, and responsiveness to rehabilitation may have been taken into account. She grew up in a home of physical, sexual, and psychological abuse, with only her stepfather, who was a feared gang member himself. She started with drugs and alcohol as early as age nine, and also joined a street gang. However, now an adult who has spent almost 2/3rds of her life in prison, she is a different person. She has completed almost all educational and vocational programs in the prison, and has acquired the equivalent of a high school diploma. She is now a certified service dog trainer, and continues to tutor and mentor the younger inmates. Amnesty International quotes her as saying, “I did what they said I did, [but] I’m not who they say I am.” She is a changed person, and so are many of the 99 other inmates serving in Illinois. However, they are all going to die in prison – unless something is changed.

I recently had the unique opportunity to talk to a mother whose son was sentenced to Juvenile Life Without Parole. He also got involved in the Chicago gangs and was convicted of homicide. His mother is now working to spread awareness about the issue and works with the other inmates as well as her own son to overturn their sentences. There are countless stories, many untold, involving troubled children who end up in prison without hope for freedom.

Over this past summer, you may have heard about the Supreme Court decision, Miller vs. Alabama, which overturned mandatory Juvenile Life Without Parole. However, discretionary Juvenile Life Without Parole is still possible, and many say that this decision is not retroactive, meaning that it does not affect those with current sentences. This is a big part of what lawyers at the Bluhm Legal Clinic are trying to fix. If the sentence is unconstitutional now, you would think that some of the prior sentences could be overturned, but the Justice System is not as cooperative as we might hope. It is important to note that nobody is suggesting that these juveniles should not spend some time in prison, but I would argue that life in prison is excessive. So while progress has been made, there is still a long way to go.

Very few people realize how much this affects our community and the country. It is extremely important that we do what we can to make others aware of our unique way of approaching juvenile crime. Awareness is a big part of what will help to start to make a difference. Now, no one in this room can write the issue off by saying “I didn’t know.” As a community, and a society, we need to take ownership of the fact that we are the only country with this sentence, and this should mean something to us all. We now have the opportunity to take a position, and even play a role in such a major issue playing out in front of our eyes. The economic costs of putting somebody in prison for 50, 60, 70 years or more is millions of taxpayer dollars, making this an issue to reconsider, even if you don’t buy the rehabilitation argument. There has to be a better way.

I am 16. I have no law degree, and no skills that can put me directly involved in helping with these cases. However, I have taken the crucial step of telling these peoples’ stories and raising awareness for their cause. I want to give them a voice. I encourage all of you to do the same. It just takes one sentence to start a conversation. If you would like to find out additional information or are a lawyer and this topic interests you, the Legal Clinic needs all the help they can get, and I would be happy to put you in touch with them. I am also more than happy to answer any questions you might have about the issue or ways to get involved.

Thank you!

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