In 2005, Javier Stauring was giving a presentation about the American juvenile justice system to an international conference in Germany when one of his comments caused a stir.
“I had said, ‘In California we give life sentences to 14-year-olds,’ and since it was being translated to everyone wearing headphones, they all turned around to ask the translators for a repeat, as if they had mistranslated,” he says. “After they found out I had not misspoken, they gathered around me dumbfounded to press me, ‘How can this be?’
“One woman said, ‘We live in the land of the Holocaust, and we look to the US as the model of what can and should be achieved in people being able to turn their lives around. How sad that you cannot give your own children that chance.’ ”
The story reminded Mr. Stauring of his shock the first time he visited a children’s unit at the Los Angeles Central Jail in 2001. He found 14-year-olds in isolation in dark cells, almost 24 hours a day, for months at a time.
After having a conversation through a thin hole with a young girl in solitary confinement who was curled up on a bunk next to a stainless steel sink and toilet, he told her he would do whatever it took to get her out of there.
But when he began trying, he found a judicial detention system that for years had been increasing penalties for youths.
In the early 2000s, tens of thousands of children were locked up in youth detention centers in California, and hundreds sentenced to life in prison with no chance of release. For about two decades, practically all new laws regarding children and crime moved toward harsher penalties and longer sentences. The millions of dollars invested in building more and larger prisons far exceeded what went to schools and crime-prevention programs.
The attitude Stauring ran into was “if the kids are old enough to do the crime, they’re old enough to do the time.”
It was Stauring’s mother who thought that he should visit youths in prison. She volunteered at her church and thought some volunteer work would do her adult son some good. At the time he was working as a salesman in the jewelry business.
“It didn’t make much sense to me,” Stauring says. “Giving up my weekends to go to jail when I could be at the beach or watching football on TV. And I was scared. I had seen those kids on the news, gang members killing innocent folks.”
After his first visit, he told a nun, Sister Janet Harris, that he didn’t think this work was for him because he wasn’t religious and he had never been in jail. Sister Harris told him to keep going and see what happened.
Over time, Stauring found that he began to identify with the youths he visited. Born in Los Angeles, he had moved to Mexico when he was 9 after his father died. There he got a good dose of what it felt like to be an outsider. He was the foreigner, the “gringo,” who didn’t speak Spanish well. Everybody else at his school had a father.
During his teenage years in Monterrey, Mexico, Stauring started hanging out with older boys who started fights to prove how tough they were. When he was 19, his family moved back to Los Angeles.
“I think my life on the streets in Mexico helped me understand the children I found in L.A. jails,” he says. “When they told me about feeling alone and vulnerable, I realized they weren’t so different from how I was as a child.”
But the real eye-opener came when he accompanied youths to court. “I had gotten to know them and their stories of loss and pain,” he says. “To sit next to them when they got 75 years in prison was shocking. I felt I owed it to them to fight for their rights.”
A few years later, Stauring quit his well-paying job as a jeweler because he felt the ironic contrast of meeting with gem dealers by day – whose eyes were on million-dollar sales – and then 14-year-olds at night, some of whom had just been given life sentences.
“I felt I had to use my time and energy on what felt meaningful,” he says. Now he spends his time accompanying youths in and out of court, meeting with them in prison, and counseling their families.
He also speaks at schools, universities, and churches, where he often brings along former youth prisoners so that his audiences can hear their stories firsthand.
He calls what he does a pastorship of direct ministry.
“We call it a ministry of presence because it’s not going into these juvenile facilities and trying to convert them, or see them as broken kids that need fixing, but rather actually going in there understanding that they are exactly what God created them to be, and that we can reflect that goodness back to them,” he says.
“They have been told over and over that they are not worth anything and that they are easily disposable,” he says. “So coming in and asking ‘What’s going on?’ ‘How are you doing?’ is showing that people care.”
Being there and listening is “more the expression of God’s unconditional love than simply handing them a Bible, and saying, ‘Here, read this [chapter and verse] on how God loves you,’ ” he says.
Stauring also cofounded a program called Healing Dialogues and Action. It brings together families who have had a loved one murdered with those who have had a family member sentenced to life in prison while still a child.
“This is an opportunity for folks to share their stories and have their stories listened to,” he says.
It is the act of compassionate listening that gets people to open up to new ideas and healing perspectives they couldn’t have imagined any other way, Stauring says.
At one meeting held last March a group of six mothers, none of whom spoke English as a first language, consisted of two Koreans, one Vietnamese, and three Latinas. After one of them, Juanita, talked openly about the pain of losing her murdered daughter and granddaughter, another, a Vietnamese named Meina, spoke of her son Chris serving a life sentence without parole for murder.
“You know, you deserve to cry, but I feel like I don’t,” Meina says. But Juanita replied, “You not only deserve to be crying because you lost a son as well but should be doing everything you can to get your son out of prison one day. And I will help you.”
Today Stauring is codirector of the Office of Restorative Justice, a part of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and has received accolades going back more than a decade. In 2003, he was one of three honorees recognized by Human Rights Watch, a nongovernmental organization that investigates human rights abuses worldwide. The group cited his “great courage” in being an advocate for juveniles held in adult jails and demanding government reforms.
He also is one of three candidates for the 2015 World’s Children’s Prize, selected by a jury of children from 15 countries. The WCP program is the world’s largest rights and democracy education initiative for children.
“Javier is quite outstanding. The greatest [description] I attribute to him is advocate and peacemaker,” says Sister Mary Sean Hodges, a Catholic nun who runs a network of halfway houses for paroled convicts in South Central Los Angeles. “He is passionate in his life in both areas, [and] he is a staunch advocate for youth.”
Stauring has worked closely with interfaith leaders to pass Senate Bill 260, a state law that went into effect Jan. 1, 2014. It gives a second chance to most youths who were under the age of 18 at the time of their crime, tried as an adult, and sentenced to an adult prison sentence.
SB 260 holds young people responsible for the crimes they committed, but it recognizes that youths are not the same as adults and gives them a chance to demonstrate remorse and rehabilitation.
• Learn more about the work of Javier Stauring and the Office of Restorative Justice at www.la-archdiocese.org/org/orj.
How to take action
Universal Giving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to groups that help children and youths:
• Nepal Youth Foundation brings hope to the most destitute children in the impoverished kingdom of Nepal. Take action: Support the work of the Nepal Youth Foundation, which provides education, housing, medical care, and loving support.
• Rural Communities Empowerment Center provides resources and services, such as literacy training, to rural communities in Ghana. Take action: Provide adolescent girls with tailoring and communication skills to help them avoid at-risk behaviors.