Former gang member James Anderson was taken aback when Jesuit Father Michael Kennedy asked him in front of a large group of teenagers if he wanted to sign the Book of Life.“This book is full of signatures of juveniles in prison who want to change their lives and there’s only one space left for one person,” the priest told Loyola High School students gathered March 7 during lunch time under a white tent at the school’s Commons Area.“What do you think, if Jay should sign it?” the priest asked the students. “Yes!” they shouted, applauding loudly.Anderson signed the book. Students Xaren Swain and Justin Hopkins (members of Loyola’s Justice and Peace Coalition, organizer of the event) signed after him as witnesses.With that, the Jesuit boys school closed its celebration of the March 4-8 Juvenile Justice Week of Faith and Healing, sponsored by the archdiocesan Office of Restorative Justice and an interfaith community. Its purpose was to raise awareness of laws that condemn thousands of juveniles to live their lives inside prison walls with little or no chance of rehabilitation or restoration of their own lives — or those of their victims and families.During the week of “education and activism,” as described by social justice teacher Thomas Portman, head of the school’s Peace and Justice Coalition, students were informed about Senate Bill 260. The proposed bill creates an alternate judicial mechanism for reconsidering the lengthy sentences of individuals who were convicted of crimes that they committed as children, after they have become adults and served a significant amount of time in state prison.The measure is designed to correct abuses of the controversial life without parole law (SB9) that was approved by legislators in 2012 after nearly five years of lobbying by the interfaith community (including Loyola students who traveled on several occasions to Sacramento).Anderson is one of the few juveniles who have been released from prison after initially facing a maximum sentence of 30 years to life.“I was blessed to receive a sentence of seven years,” the 20-year-old former gang member told students and teachers. He shared how the neglect he suffered from his parents and his only brother at an early age left him to “fend for myself” on the streets.Drugs and violence were a constant in his home, he said. While his father tried to show him he cared for him by beating him when he [Anderson] got drunk, he let Anderson’s older brother get away with using crystal meth at home together with his friends.In ninth grade Anderson dropped out of school and was constantly seeking respect and trouble, which led him to juvenile hall. There he became Father Kennedy’s altar boy, “so I could see where my rival gang members were so after church I could attack them,” he told the attentive young audience.But love — an emotion he had never felt before — that he developed for a young woman who is now his girlfriend helped him realize that he needed to change his ways. After serving three years, he was paroled for good conduct. Today he works full time with the Jesuit Restorative Justice Initiative, founded by Father Kennedy (who is also co-chaplain at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar), and supports other nonprofits that promote restorative justice, where victims and offenders, and their families, find common ground that lead to reconciliation, all tied to restorative laws.He is in second college semester with “all ‘As’ you guys,” he proudly told Loyola students who responded with a strong applause.‘Education, an equalizer’To educate their community about the situation of incarcerated youth in California, students organized a wide range of events for the week, including daily keynote speeches, a book drive, and journal writing describing their emotions if they were sentenced to life behind bars. The latter activity took place after students sat inside a cell (in the Common Area) resembling an actual juvenile hall cell and a bus “cage” where juveniles are transported to court.“You feel like an animal in here,” said sophomores Benjamin Post and Jack McGeagh, while standing inside the cage.“I’m learning a lot about the [justice] system,” said sophomore Diego Bardales, who said he knows of people who are serving time in prison.“It’s dehumanizing,” said sophomores Troi Dixon and Luca Raspi, while writing their journals inside the fake cell.“We attend this great school, a great campus, and you go a couple of miles away and reality is very different,” added Dixon. “We’re in this little bubble, and we don’t see what’s in the outside world.”According to Portman, one of the key goals of Juvenile Justice Week is “to get rid of stereotypes that portray incarcerated juveniles as monsters.”Hollywood film producer Scott Budnick stressed that point during his keynote speech March 4. He narrated how the first day he started volunteering in 2003 with the creative writing program InsideOUT — co-founded by Sister Janet Harris — he was exposed to “something no one else gets to see.”The topic that day was forgiveness, he said, “and when I saw what kids wrote about forgiveness my mind was blown. I learned that these kids have been victims their entire lives, but they have no voice, no one caring for them. And the most amazing things happen when an 18-year-old is put in a college program. They begin to find their real identity and they start to change.”He called education “an equalizer,” and he urged students to advocate for SB260, as did day two’s keynote speaker, Javier Stauring, co-director of the Office of Restorative Justice and chaplain for the last 20 years at Central Juvenile Hall.“What we find in restorative justice is that we need to focus on the pain, not on the punishment,” Stauring said. “In the environments where these kids are raised it’s easier to get a gun than books. The justice system equates punishment to justice, whereas restorative justice focuses on who’s been hurt and how to help in the path of healing all those involved in the process.”One of the purposes of the event, said Portman, was “to emphasize that these incarcerated youth are part of our family of God."“When we lean on faith,” added student Raspi, “there’s another way through.”For more information about Juvenile Justice, call the Office of Restorative Justice, (213) 438-4320. To contact the Jesuit Restorative Justice Initiative, call (310) 559-0777 or visit{gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2013/0315/juvjustice/{/gallery}