Kenneth Young is born on June 15th in Tampa, Florida. His father dies before his first birthday, leaving Kenneth to be raised by a single-mother in a crime-ridden neighborhood, known as Suitcase City. Here one in five children live below the poverty line.
U.S. President Ronald Reagan passes the “Comprehensive Crime Control Act”, which contains the most significant series of changes in the federal criminal justice system ever enacted at one time. The changes set the stage for longer sentences for more people; and an eventual quadrupling of America’s prison population.
Kenneth’s mother Stephanie Young is in her early 20s, when she begins a 19-year addiction to crack cocaine. Throughout his childhood, Kenneth is often left at home alone, or with his sister, Ebony, who is just a few years older than him.
A crack epidemic is sweeping across the United States. By 1986 there is a 210 percent increase in the number of cocaine-related hospital emergencies. Cheap and abundant, crack becomes a major public health issue, particularly in low-income, minority neighborhoods.
Through out his childhood, Kenneth is shuffled between his grandmother, aunt and mother’s house – as the Young family tries to help Stephanie raise her son. Over the next ten years, Kenneth will change schools three times. With the death of his grandmother, his attendance and marks drop dramatically in grade 7.
In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court sanctioned the imposition of the death penalty for offenders who were at least 16 years of age at the time of their crime. Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, 3 children have been sentenced to death. Over the next 16 years 19 more children will be sentenced to death and later executed.
Kenneth’s 15-year old sister gives birth to her first child, Sabrianna. Two years later Ebony has her second daughter, Yoni. Soon after Kenneth drops out of school to help take care of his young nieces while his sister goes to work at a local fast food chain.
In Florida two highly publicized tourist murders shift the emphasis in juvenile justice from prevention and rehabilitation to prosecution and punishment. From 1991 to 1995, Florida’s juvenile justice budget triples, and more kids are sent to prison – and for longer – than in any other state in the country.
With his mother still addicted to crack, Kenneth has limited supervision at home and more and more exposure to the criminal activity in his neighborhood. The north-Tampa neighborhood, Suitcase City, known for its transient population, has the highest crime rate in the State.
Criminologist John Diiulio coins the term “super-predator”. In his best-selling book, “Body Count”, he theorizes that America is “now home to thickening ranks of brutally remorseless youngsters, who murder, assault, rape, rob, burglarize…”
Between 1990-1996, forty states amended their laws to allow more children to be prosecuted as adults.
Two weeks before his 15th birthday, Kenneth is recruited by his mother’s 24-year-old crack dealer, Jacque Bethea, to rob hotels. Bethea has a long criminal record for cocaine trafficking and violence.
Kenneth claims he was forced to help Bethea because his mother had stolen drugs from him. Between June 5th and July 1st Kenneth Young, and Jacque Bethea commit four armed robberies in the Tampa Bay region and across state lines, in Georgia.
From 2001 to 2004, Kenneth is shuttled from jail to court. Because of his young age and the severity of his sentence, he is isolated and kept under constant surveillance. By age 18 he has four consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole. Having grown up behind bars, he is now condemned to die in prison. Kenneth is moved to adult prison to serve out his sentence in Florida’s correctional institutions.
Lawyer Bryan Stevenson wins U.S. Supreme Court challenge, Roper v. Simmons, making it unconstitutional to sentence children to death. The Court reasoned that a child’s brain development and unique capacity for change, makes it “misguided to equate the failing of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility exists that a minor’s character deficiencies will be reformed.”
Paolo Annino and his students at Florida State University have been working on Kennth’s case for two years. In 2009 Annino files a petition for clemency with Florida Governor Charles Crist.
Governor Crist supports a pardon for Jim Morrison, the legendary lead singer of the rock band The Doors. Deceased in 1971, Morrison was convicted of exposing himself at a Miami concert in 1969.
Following the Graham decision, Annino files to have Kenneth’s four life without parole sentences vacated. A resentencing hearing is set for the Fall of 2011. The filmmakers begin documenting Kenneth Young’s story, and interviewing him in prison.
The U.S. Supreme Court bans juvenile life without parole sentences for children whose crimes are less than murder. Graham v Florida states, “children must be given a reasonable opportunity to obtain release, based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”
Paolo and his law graduates gather testimony from expert witnesses and family members to prove Kenneth is rehabilitated, and that the judge who condemned him to die in prison was wrong to throw away the key. The filmmakers document Kenneth’s resentencing case for the next two years, filming the emotional journey of Kenneth, his family, and his lawyers.
Before Kenneth’s resentencing is complete, the U.S. Supreme Court releases another landmark ruling. In 2012 Bryan Stevenson wins his second Supreme Court decision challenging harsh sentences for children. Miller v Alabama bans the use of mandatory life sentences for juveniles and reaffirms the Graham principle that children must be given an opportunity for release based on rehabilitation.