As I began to research juvenile sentences of life without parole, reading articles, reports and studies from individuals and groups on both sides of this argument, the essence of the debate presented itself in the form of a few very fundamental questions, the answers to which have significant ramifications for our society. When children commit crimes, should rehabilitation take precedence over punishment? Can a child be ruled to be an adult, based on a single action? Can children who commit violent acts be rehabilitated? By focusing on the case of a child who committed multiple armed robberies at the age of 14 and 15, I set out to answer these questions.
Invariably when you’re filming, people stop and ask what you’re doing. Each time that happened with this film, I told the questioner that we were making a documentary about kids who get sentenced to life in prison. The reaction was always the same: “Children? How old? In the United States?” This last question invariably ended with a disbelieving headshake when I explained that other than Somalia, the U.S. is the only country in the world that sentences children to die in prison. Yet despite this common public disapproval of life sentences for children, I have found strong support for it among many prosecutors, judges and legislators. Why?
I believe that, as a society, we’ve become engrossed in the sordid details of youth crimes. Every day we’re bombarded with stories of delinquent youth. We’ve labeled our children “super predators.” And we watch television shows like Killer Kids. Victims’ rights groups have become the most vocal lobbyists opposing juvenile sentencing reform, even though not all victims think alike. I wanted to tell a different story, one that shattered stereotypes and put a child’s face on the issue. By focusing on one case, that of Kenneth Young, I wanted to show the complicated nature of his relationship with his mother, the absence of social safety nets to help Kenneth and young people like him, and the injustice that is inherent in trying children as adults.
Ironically, the United States was the first country in the world to create a separate justice system for juveniles. In 1899, the country’s first juvenile court was established in Cook County, Illinois. Its primary focus was rehabilitation. Today there are nearly 300,000 children serving sentences in adult prisons. And each year nearly 250,000 children are transferred to adult courts, where they face sentences of lengthy incarceration.
Since the 2010 Graham v. Florida decision, which ruled that life sentences for juveniles convicted of crimes other than murder were unconstitutional, some 80 child offenders have been resentenced. Typically those who have been released have been in their early 40s and have already served significant parts of their sentences. But younger inmates have often been resentenced to multi-decade prison terms, or virtual life sentences, the longest being 110 years. In some states, these virtual life sentences have been overturned by higher courts. Across the country, courts and legislatures are grappling with how to interpret recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, including Miller v. Alabama, which banned mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles in 2012.
America’s juvenile justice system is at a crossroads. What happens over the next few years will determine whether we continue down a road of retribution or return to the ideal of rehabilitation on which the juvenile justice system was founded. My hope is that Kenneth Young’s voice will add a vital perspective that is often missing from this debate. Kenneth is living proof that a child should never be punished as an adult, and that juvenile offenders can be rehabilitated.