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Opinion | Michigan must end immoral life without parole for adolescents

We’re each more than the worst thing we have ever done. It’s a message I needed to hear while behind bars, and it’s a sermon I am honored to deliver weekly from the pulpit at Nazarene Missionary Baptist Church. Once a prisoner and now a pastor, I’m dismayed at the number of children in our state deprived of this good news, condemned to die in prison, and denied a pathway to live a redeemed life offered by God to us all.

Kevin Harris headshot
Kevin Harris is the pastor of the Nazarene Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit.

Sharing my shock at how many children we have thrown away, communities of faith are uniting for the abolition of life without parole sentences for children across Michigan. This summer, the Nazarene Missionary Baptist Church, where I am privileged to serve as senior pastor, hosted an Advocacy Day in Detroit where we gathered to support the passage of vital legislation, HB 4160-64/SB 119-123, that would end juvenile life without parole sentences in our state. During this Advocacy Day, the words of bill co-sponsor Rep. Kara Hope resonated deeply: "Depriving someone of hope at a young age before they’re fully developed is immoral."

Indeed, the legal changes we seek are firmly grounded in established science concerning adolescent brain development, but morality is as central to this issue as any scientific evidence. We know that teenagers' brains are not fully developed and that children must therefore be held accountable in age-appropriate, trauma-informed, and healing-centered ways. We also have a moral responsibility to advocate for rather than discard the most vulnerable members of our society, especially our children. It’s a moral compass most Michigan residents carry, as 78 percent agree that all adolescents, even those convicted of a violent offense, have the capacity for positive change. While we come from diverse communities, religious teachings, and ethical codes, we are united in the universal understanding that we must uphold the dignity and promise of all our children, including children who make grave mistakes. 

While we are united in this shared understanding, our policies and practices stray from our principles. We are in the minority of US states that condemn children to die in prison. Worse, Michigan is home to the biggest population in the world of people serving life without parole for crimes they committed as children.  

Our children who face life sentences are undeniably our most vulnerable. Most children who commit harm have overwhelmingly experienced disturbing levels of harm themselves. In Michigan, 70 percent of the children sentenced to life without parole are Black, and most are from marginalized backgrounds who face circumstances beyond their control — environments plagued by violence, poverty, and lack of educational and economic opportunities. Sentencing them to life without parole further entrenches these disparities, perpetuating a cycle of harm. 

We must opt for accountability that is grounded not in endless punishment, but hope, healing, and the right to redemption. This does not mean downplaying the gravity of their actions, but rather recognizing their capacity for change. The proposed legislative reforms in no way guarantee freedom but merely establish a review process for all children convicted of serious crimes to demonstrate their rehabilitation to a parole board. Powerfully, elevating methods for young perpetrators to demonstrate their healing journey has the potential to bring healing to all involved. 

The voices of survivors of youth crime who attended the Advocacy Day deeply moved me as they explained how supporting the rehabilitation of the young individuals who caused them harm brought them significant emotional and spiritual repair. Studies have found that rehabilitation is more victim-centered. Communities across our nation have experienced it. Even in our darkest moments, there exists the potential to collectively heal.

There are people behind bars who know better than anyone what our young people are going through. In profound need of healing, there are children in our communities who are hurting. Answering this pain with empathy and expertise are formerly life sentenced children like Machelle Pearson. After serving 34 and a half years in prison as the first girl in Michigan sentenced to life without parole, she now mentors teens from abusive and broken homes. She works tirelessly to show inner-city kids that they have a "big sister" in her, steering young people away from the path she once followed. As I've met formerly life-sentenced children like Machelle, it has become clear to me how crucial these individuals are in guiding and mentoring the younger generation in our community, helping to break the cycles of violence and incarceration that plague too many lives. Giving life-sentenced children a chance at healing and hope strengthens the fabric of our community.

I can personally attest to how transformative life sentenced individuals were in helping me return to my community as a healer. During my own time in prison, their mentorship prepared and propelled me to make the most of my second chance. They now need their opportunity to do the same. As a current pastor, former prisoner, and eternal disciple of hope, I urge Michigan lawmakers to be faithful to our calling to care for children by choosing hope and healing rather than life-long condemnation. I urge us to enact this legislation to end life without parole sentences for children and undo this state’s violations of our shared moral truths.

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