January 23, 2018 – The criminal justice pendulum has swung back and forth over the years regarding children and juveniles who commit felony crimes. Kids as young as 11 years of age have been given long sentences in adult prisons recently. Given that rates of youth violence have dropped 12 percent in the past 25 years, you would not expect this to be big political issue, but it is.
This documentary movie follows a small group of juveniles tried as adults in California at the same time the California legislature is debating a bill to allow these kinds of prisoners to be eligible for parole after 15 years. This is the kind of legislation which would not stand a chance in a conservative state, but in California, it has a chance.
Access to the juveniles in this film is obtained through a unique program at California's Sylmar Hall High Security Compound which provides some inmates with an opportunity to help write a movie screenplay and work on a film production. Inmates Juan Gamez, Antonio Hernandez and Jarad Nava are among the prisoners working with film producer Gabriel Cowan to make a movie.
The film was shot inside the prison, as well as outside. It also includes news footage to give a background on criminal justice reform and some juvenile justice system history. The documentary includes some interviews with family members of the prisoners, as well as with some of the victims of the crimes they committed.
One scene features security camera footage of a murder committed by one of the juveniles in the movie. There is also video from the police interrogation of one of the prisoners. The film also has courtroom scenes and interviews with defense and prosecution lawyers.
There is an enormous contrast between the juveniles, as seen in their prison and courtroom settings, and the scenes which show the severity of the crimes committed. One of these jarring contrasts is seen in an interview with Yesenia Castro, who was shot by one of the juveniles. The bullet paralyzed her and she can no longer walk. The juveniles in the film look like kids, but the crimes they committed have permanent consequences.
This film gives both sides of the juvenile justice system debate a fair hearing. Both sides seem to agree that juveniles are different from adults, particularly in terms of their mental development. Juveniles are more prone to engage in impulsive behaviors, are less risk averse, and are less resistant to group pressure than adults are.
One juvenile in the film who winds up in the juvenile justice system is released from prison, but ends up in trouble again, using drugs, committing crimes again. This is hardly an endorsement of a more lenient approach.
There seems to be no clear cut message in this film, except that the juvenile justice system is not really equipped to handle juveniles who commit violent crimes. It appears that the juveniles in this film are not people you'd want running around loose. Maybe they could be rehabilitated, but most prisons are not set up for that. Maybe they will be O.K. once they become adults.
In a perfect world, every person would have an equal chance at a good life. But that is not the case. The problem is that some environments produce a lot more opportunities for criminal career advancement than opportunities for good jobs. Society either has to deal with those environments, or deal with the consequences. Right now we're just dealing with the consequences. Perhaps a law like the one in California, to make people eligible for parole at an earlier age, is a fair compromise.
To me, this film seems incomplete. It is just a snapshot of a tiny piece of a very large problem. This film rates a C+.
P.S. Right after I finished writing this review, there was another shooting at another school (Marshall County High School in Western Kentucky). Two dead, so far, and 17 wounded. The shooter is 15 years old. Some prosecutor and some judge are going to have to figure out what to do with this guy for the next 65 or so years of his life.
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