Murder is a terrible, heinous crime. No doubt about that. We need to question though how we best respond. Especially our knee jerk reaction of lock ’em up and throw away the key. Are all murders and all murderers the same, equally deserving of the harshest punishment?

He, like many others, created a false debate and dichotomy. It’s not rehabilitation or justice. It’s rehabilitation AND justice.

What if the killer is an abused child? What if a teenager didn’t pull the trigger but was at the scene?

The US Supreme Court is grappling with these issues right now. It just heard an appeal filed by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), involving two cases of teenagers sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

Bryan Stevenson, executive director of EJI, represented Evan Miller and Kuntrell Jackson, convicted in Alabama and Arkansas of homicides committed when they were 14 years old. Miller and a friend beat a 52 year old neighbor and set fire to his trailer. Jackson was involved in a robbery; his co-assailant shot the video store clerk.

What disturbs me is that no consideration was given to Evan’s life of abuse; his father abused him so much that he tried to hang himself when he was only five years old. What about the adults who “physically abused him, failed to provide him with a safe place to live or other basic necessities, and taught him to use drugs and alcohol,” as his lawyer wrote?

None of this mattered due to mandatory sentencing; Evan was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison with no parole. And this is justice?

Please don’t misunderstand me. My heart goes out to the victims and their families. Offenders must be held accountable, no excuses.

Life without ParoleThe question is how do we best hold offenders accountable and support victims’ healing? What is justice?

It’s counterproductive to buy into an artificial us vs. them, choosing between the needs and rights of offenders or victims.

Mary Johnson’s 20 year old son was killed by 16 year old Oshea Israel. Mary thought Oshea was an animal, hating him and wanting him to be imprisoned for the rest of his life. After a restorative meeting in prison, Mary’s anger and hatred left. Mary founded From Death to Life; Mary and Oshea were among those outside the Supreme Court, proving that youth do deserve a second chance.

I also think of Azim Khamisa, whose son was murdered by 14 year old Tony Hicks. Tony became the first child under 16 to be tried as an adult in California. Azim set up the Tariq Khamisa Foundation in honour of his son and I had the pleasure of hearing him with Tony’s guardian Ples Felix speak out against youth violence. Azim eventually met with Tony in prison. He says he saw “victims at both ends of the gun” on that fateful night.

There are many such stories of healing and transformation. Some families of victims advocate for teen killers.

Many family members of victims also speak out in favour of life imprisonment. This is understandable. Many, like Mary, have that initial response. I would never tell victims that they need to forgive and will respect whatever they are feeling.

I also argue that victims should always be given the opportunity to participate in a restorative process. Sometimes the benefits of restorative justice for victims are overlooked. Overall, evidence shows victims are satisfied, symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder are reduced, and they experience less fear, anger and hurt.

Victims, Offenders and Community The UK organization Why Me? promotes the right of victim’s access to restorative justice, to get the chance to talk with the person who caused them harm. The US organization for murder victims families states: “if the victim initiates and desires restorative justice, and the offender is willing and able, we believe that restorative justice is a right.”

When Scott Burns, head of the National District Attorneys Association arguing in favour of life without parole, was asked if a teenager’s ability to change and express remorse is worth something, he said: “Well, that’s the debate, isn’t it? Is it the goal to rehabilitate someone to see if they change? Or is the goal to do justice for the victims and others?”

He, like many others, created a false debate and dichotomy. It’s not rehabilitation or justice. It’s rehabilitation AND justice.

We are able to hold offenders accountable, support victim healing, build community, and respect the human rights of everyone. Isn’t this worthy of being called justice?

I hope the justices recognize what justice could really look like, and not only hold our teenagers accountable but also give them the opportunity to learn and make amends. There should be no throw away kids. We can do better than that.