On his next to last day at the Los Angeles Archdiocese’s Office of Restorative Justice, co-director Javier Stauring went to a sentencing on the 11th floor of the Criminal Courts building in Downtown L.A. with heavy shoulders. Carlos Vazquez, an 18-year-old man-child from gritty Pico-Union, had plea-bargained 35-years-to-life down to 11 years in a state prison. At 16, Carlos got in a gang fight that ended with a knifing and killing by a fellow gang member. But the sentence was the same.
Stauring was here to try one last time to convince Superior Court Judge Katherine Mader to lessen that still hard time. He’d watched Carlos change during his two years at the Barry M. Nadoff Juvenile Camp in Sylmar, where he wrote a letter to Pope Francis that got a response from the Holy Father.
The judge commended Carlos for another letter he’d written to the superior court. She said it was clear he really wanted his future to go in a whole different direction. And she even praised his writing, saying he had a genuine talent for putting words on paper. But then she pointed out how her hands were tied because all parties had agreed on the plea deal and already signed it.
So for Stauring it was a melancholy victory at best, like so many during his 22 years at the Office of Restorative Justice. More youths than he can recall got life, and he couldn’t do anything about it except promise to visit them. Kids he had established relationships within juvenile halls before being sent away to San Quentin, Folsom, Mule Creek and other state prisons.
But there were struggles waged and won, too.
Like in June 2003. He and Jesuit Father Greg Boyle were banned from visiting L.A. County Men’s Central Jail with its then-juvenile module after they protested conditions inside, which he called a “sin.” Chaplain Stauring sued then-Sheriff Lee Baca for violating his First Amendment right of free speech. After two years, his jail credentials were restored and the Los Angeles Times headline proclaimed “Chaplain Gets His Wish: He’s Back in an L.A. Jail.”
Almost all but the most dangerous youths were removed from Central. And, eventually, the juvenile unit was shut down.
In the early 2000s, Stauring led an interfaith coalition of religious leaders to lobby Sacramento against sentencing youths to die in prison with no possibility of parole. With the passage of SB 9 on Sept. 30, 2012, inmates after serving 25 years of their life sentence could ask for judicial review.
And the next year, he backed another California senate bill, SB 260, that said the parole process of juvenile offenders convicted in adult court must take into account the age of the offender. During a sentencing, specific years are set to do a “youth offender parole hearing.”
So it’s no surprise accolades poured in. Human Rights Watch praised Stauring for his “great courage” in publically protesting the horrendous living conditions for juvenile offenders in Men’s Central. Los Angeles County and Loyola Law School have both honored him. And Death Penalty Focus praised him for organizing campaigns to stop capital punishment in the Golden State.
Gemologist to ministry
What’s amazing is Stauring was well on a whole different — and very successful — career path as a certified gemologist, putting on high-end jewelry shows around the country. But his mother Consuelo, who had become a detention ministry volunteer, kept pestering her then young adult son to also take up the ministry she’d come to love.
He thought that was plain stupid: “Give up your Sundays to go to jail when I could be at the beach or watching football on TV? And what about having to watch your back all the time visiting those gang members?”
But then at the beach one sunny weekend he read a feature piece on Father Boyle, the Jesuit who worked with these gang members on the street. “So I went, and it was almost an immediate connection for me,” he says. “I think it was identifying with kids who felt like outsiders.”
Stauring had felt that way, being born in South Los Angeles but raised in Monterrey, Mexico, especially after his dad died. He was a gringo who didn’t even speak Spanish. As a teenager, hanging with older guys, there were fights to prove how macho he was. But at 19, his family crossed the border again, and he felt like an immigrant living in America.
So volunteering in Central Juvenile Hall on Sundays, sitting down with kids and hearing their tragic life stories, he could really relate to them. Soon the only NFL football watching happened on Monday nights.
And it was getting harder to juggle his job as a traveling jewelry rep with his own growing detention ministry. So in 1996, when Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet Suzanne Jabro, then-director of the L.A. Archdiocese’s Detention Ministry — that later became the Office of Restorative Justice — asked him to come onboard, he jumped at the chance.
“I just felt called to the ministry,” he explains. And hasn’t looked back.
‘Best job in the world’
When asked about leaving the office, Stauring pauses a moment, searching for the right words. “Well, I always refer to my job at the archdiocese as the best job in the world,” he says with a knowing chuckle. “It opened the doors for me to be able to build really meaningful, deep relationships with incarcerated youths and their families and victims of crime. My ministry was always a ministry of presence. It wasn’t so much preaching or trying to convert anybody. You know, it’s more trying to be an example of the God that we know, which is a God of second chances, a God of understanding, a God of unconditional love.
“So that will continue to be who I am in my relationship with those who are incarcerated and victims of crime,” he adds. “I’m gonna continue to work with victims and families of the incarcerated, who are the people who have inspired my life. I’m really fortunate that I’m aligning myself with advocate organizations that I’ve worked with and will be able to focus more on systemic change. And, at the same time, I’ll be able to continue to do the ministry kind of work that I love.”
Stauring, in fact, is now running two full time programs he actually began at the Office of Restorative Justice. “Healing Dialogues in Action” brings families of murdered victims and families of offenders together. And while these two groups aren’t directly connected to each other, the sharing and compassion that happens during a daylong session is “really, really powerful,” he notes. Members of both become “critical voices” through their hands-on experiences in reforming California’s criminal justice system.
“Healing Justice Coalition,” meanwhile, brings faith leaders inside juvenile halls to meet detained youths and hear their life struggles. Members of the clergy can then bring these first-person accounts back to their congregations.
Both programs are operating under the Youth Law Center in San Francisco, out of office space at Human Rights Watch in West Los Angeles.
And what’s he most proud of at the Office of Restorative Justice?
Stauring doesn’t hesitate. “We’ve really established a place within the advocacy world where the Archdiocese of Los Angeles has a very important voice,” he says. “And my hope is that we don’t lose that.”
California’s juvenile justice system has been a “brutal” one since the 1980s, he stresses — the guiding philosophy that old punitive “Lock-‘em-up-and-throw-away-the-key.” Rehabilitation? What’s that?
“I think we are going through a period of awareness now,” he points out. “And now we realize that we can’t use prisons to fix our problems. We need to deal with the root causes of why people hurt other people. We need to also not dehumanize people in prison to the point where you wouldn’t want anybody to ever get out.
“But 2016 is gonna be probably the most significant year since I’ve been around in terms of possible systemic reform,” he says. “Governor Brown’s introduced an initiative for the November ballot on sentencing reform that also includes a big piece on juvenile justice, which, hopefully, will translate to fewer kids being tried as adults and facing life sentences and bringing back incentives for inmates to do well in prison. More opportunities inside to rehabilitate themselves.”
And his voice changes gears: “Which makes sense, right? So 2016 is gonna be a big year.”