Even in the darkest of circumstances, every person deserves a shot at redemption. This is particularly the case for those who commit crimes and are imprisoned. On more than one occasion, Pope Francis has stated that inmates should never be deprived of the opportunity to redeem themselves.
Most recently, at his general audience at the Vatican on Jan. 19, Pope Francis spoke about the need for fair justice systems that allow for rehabilitation and redemption.
“It is right that those who have done wrong should pay for their mistake,” he said, “but it is equally right that those who have done wrong should be able to redeem themselves from their mistake. There cannot be sentences without a window of hope.”
A window of hope is one way to describe a movement in the United States to ban life sentences without parole for juveniles. Today, 25 states, including Wisconsin, impose life sentences without the possibility of release for juvenile offenders. If new legislation that was introduced at the State Capitol on Jan. 13 passes, Wisconsin would give “youthful offenders” — individuals who committed the crime before he or she turned 18 years old — an opportunity for parole.
Senate Bill 862 was introduced by four state senators and co-sponsored by 26 state representatives from both political parties. Similar legislation, Assembly Bill 856, was introduced in the State Assembly on Jan. 18.
According to the proposed legislation, the bill “creates a new procedure for an incarcerated youthful offender to petition the sentencing court for a sentence adjustment after serving 15 years of his or her sentence in prison, or, if the person is serving a sentence for a crime that is a felony that caused the death of a person or is a felony sexual assault of a child, after serving 20 years in prison.”
“I am proud to join with a bipartisan group of legislators to co-author this bill to prohibit juvenile life without parole,” Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) told the Wisconsin Examiner online news site (wisconsinexaminer.com). “Ending this unforgiving and wasteful sentencing practice will better align our criminal justice system with the goals of rehabilitation and redemption of offenders and, ultimately, make it more just in the eyes of the community.”
While victims of crime and their communities “deserve justice, especially in situations where there has been a tragic loss of life,” said Sen. Johnson, “a child is also a terrible thing to waste, and there is no chance for redemption for a minor who has been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.”
According to The Sentencing Project, which works for a fair and effective criminal justice system, 1,465 people were serving juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) sentences across the United States in 2020.
To put a human face on JLWOP offenders, we need to look no further than the Green Bay Correctional Institution in Allouez, where DarRen Morris is serving a life sentence for being a party to murder. He was 17 when the crime took place.
“I was a party to the unintentional death of an innocent man. Although I was involved in this death, I am not a murderer. I know this in my heart, in my regret for this loss of life, and through my daily actions,” according to Morris.
His statement appears on a website that displays his acrylic paintings. Art is the daily action that he has practiced in maximum security prison, where he has spent more than half of his life. Spirituality is one theme of Morris’s paintings, with Jesus as a subject of many pieces.
“In the years to come, I want to create art that will help save youth from making thoughtless choices,” Morris declares on the website. “I also want to create art that will help you on the outside understand what we face on the inside — the very real need for prison reform in Wisconsin and elsewhere and the very real need to involve more people in working toward prisoner rehabilitation rather than punishment.”
SB-862 is one way we can achieve a more humane justice system and allow people like Morris, who has reformed his life, to open that window of hope.
For those wishing to view some of Morris’s artwork, visit darrenmorris.art. An exhibit is also on display at 353 Main Ave., Suite A, in West De Pere, Thursdays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., until Feb. 19.