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Sister of Mercy

Janet Harris plants the seeds of faith and reform within juvenile offenders and prays they do not fall upon hard ground. But it is a mission filled with pain.


Sister Janet Harris doesn't hear the shouts from across the grounds at Central Juvenile Hall. She continues walking--her thoughts adrift like a balloon on land wind, carried to waters deep with unfinished paperwork and squalls of dire sequela.

She is rarely still. Shortly after 5 a.m., after a cup of coffee thinned by milk, she often walks a mile. That is when she prays. At 66, her relationship with God is so much a part of her that it isn't always necessary to talk in order to feel closeness, to express love and faith.

"Usually," she says, "I just try to listen."

But this morning she asked God to give her time to catch up on her work as Central's Catholic chaplain. There are letters to write, telephone calls to return, lawyers to contact. But it becomes apparent as the day unfolds that he must be short-staffed today.

"Sister Janet, Sister Janet."

Valerie Pincham, a unit supervisor, is shouting and waving her arms. Finally, Sister Janet turns her head, changes course and they meet in the center of the patchy grass.

"I'd like to talk to you about a girl," Pincham says, her words rushed. "She's charged with killing her caseworker on a dare. She's 15, in adult court, looking at a double life sentence. She's scared to death."

As chaplain, most of Sister Janet's duties are administrative, but she and Protestant chaplain Lillie Jackson also handle the daily crises when youths find themselves overwhelmed by the weight of their circumstances and the uncertainty of their futures.

Sister Janet gently places an arm over Pincham's shoulder as they walk slowly toward the girl's classroom.

"Her mother passed away when she was 7, her father has been in and out of penitentiary," Pincham continues. "Can you talk to her?"


Sister Janet has been at timeworn Central for six years. Her involvement with troubled youths began in the early 1970s, when she taught at Our Lady of Loretto High School in the Pico-Union area and began working with gang members on some of the city's toughest streets.

She gained their trust and shared their burdens. Like them, she faced tough decisions.

One day while two sisters were helping her figure out her finances, a young man filled with rage showed up at her door ready, he said, to kill a rival. He asked Sister Janet for money, which she gave him. He asked for a ride, which she also provided. The man used the money and the ride to buy drugs.

"There are hard calls you have to make," she says. "At the time, my main concern was saving a life, finding a way to keep him from killing somebody."

Where in her budget, she wondered later, should she write in $40 spent on drugs?

For her work, she has been called a traitor, a disgrace to the church. She has been threatened with death. How could a nun, of all people, be an advocate for those who have done such evil? "Where were you?" asked one mother in court, "when my son was killed?"

Sister Janet is but 5-foot-5, 125 pounds, but her skin is deceivingly thick, her faith infinitely strong. "What sustains me," she says, "is the sense of God's love for these young people. I always get a sense that if he were going to hang out anyplace, this is where he would be."

It is a rare heart that can contain the pain of both victims and criminals. But there is a larger picture, Sister Janet says, beyond the acts in which some people kill and some people die:

"I believe in restorative justice not retributive justice, not looking only at the act, which was hideous, horrible, monstrous, but looking at the other part of the equation. Where is justice done? In punishment? Or is justice holding that person accountable and yet at some point saying he's not the person he was when he was 16, let's give him a chance? There are some kids that are very damaged, but I disagree with this focus that we have now of trying them as adults. They're not adults, they don't think like adults. They don't have adult life experiences."

She has a graceful, halcyon demeanor. Her words reflect compassion and conviction, a poetic and street-smart intelligence. Her smile is comforting and uplifting; and it's best to keep her smiling, because--you see--she has this other side.

Cops and politicians, Crips and Bloods, Central staff and a bishop or two have seen it, have witnessed her soft blue eyes turning sharp with fury when she believes a person's rights are being violated.

Sister Janet is critical of politicians who brought about the three-strikes law and lowered the age at which juveniles can be tried as adults for serious crimes. Judges, she says, have lost their discretionary powers to political pressures.

"I know we have to think about security. People need to be kept safe, but do we need to have such draconian punishment? I think we've gone berserk. I think politicians know when they talk about crime and punishment there are some good buttons to push. They've exploited that at the expense of the youths."

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