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Juvies: Getting the story straight

By -- March 8, 2012

On Monday night I went to the Just Kids Partnership’s screening of the 2004 documentary, Juvies. The heartbreaking film, narrated by Mark Wahlberg (who was incarcerated as an adult when he was 16), follows twelve kids who have been let down by their community. The twelve kids charged as adults were picked at random for a film workshop where they were given cameras to create many of the interviews and stories used in documentary, which were cut with expert testimonials from academics, neurologists, a former district attorney of Los Angeles County, and also various street interviews.

After the heart-wrenching stories of the twelve kids (many of whom faced childhoods of sexual and/or physical abuse, gang violence, or had incarcerated parents), what moved me the most were the street interviews. They alone show how dire it is to educate the public on the plethora of reasons kids should not be locked up with adults (which Jessica has excellently outlined in her recent blog post). There seems to be a common belief that juvenile crime is on the rise, and that children who commit “adult crimes” deserve “adult time.” Some people are just not willing to realize what effect an adult prison sentence will have on our youth.

At the beginning of the film, the people who were interviewed on the street were asked if they think that youth should be tried as adults when charged with certain crimes. Almost everyone said yes. I believe that because thinking about prison life and all of the collateral consequences that come with it can be difficult, some people form a mental block that prevents them from seeing what it really is. What Juvies excellently does is provide real stories that humanize the statistics and force people to really think about it. Let’s take the story of Duc as an example.

Duc was 16 years old when his friend fired a gun from the back seat of the car while Duc was driving. No one was injured. He had no priors. He was convicted as an adult, and was sentenced to 35 years to life in prison. The adult prison system is not required to provide education or rehabilitative services. What happens to Duc when he gets out?

After the people on the street heard Duc’s story, they were asked what they thought Duc’s sentence should be. One man, who had previously said Duc should be tried as an adult, said he should be sentenced to 2-3 years in prison. After hearing that Duc’s sentence was 35 years to life, many people who supported charging youth as adults considered his sentence to be excessive, but this is what thousands of kids are condemned to.

Today I read an article called You Tell Us: Should A Youth Jail Be Built in Baltimore?, which asks readers to state whether they think Maryland should spend a $70 million jail to hold juveniles charged as adults. Some of the comments reflect the same thinking shown in the film. One person says, “Sad to say, but yes, it should....One does not want them in the adult population where they will be abused further. A jail for minors could hopefully rehab some of them.” This reader’s heart is in the right place, but misconstrues the proposed Baltimore jail as a juvenile facility that will offer juvenile sentences with a primary goal of rehabilitation. These kids need to stay in the juvenile system, and instead we need to spend our $70 million dollars on schools, recreation centers, and rehabilitative programs for our youth so we can prevent crime rather than spend millions of dollars to lock up our children. Another commenter says, “Putting them with older prisoners may actually help them perhaps they will see that they don't want to spend the next 20 years in and out of jail and change.” It is likely for very many that they will spend the next 20 years in jail because of their adult sentences, and the recidivism rate is much higher for youth in the adult prison system than for those in the juvenile system. Not to mention the much higher risk of suicide and sexual abuse...

That’s why it is so important to educate people about what it really means for a child to be charged as an adult. I know that the majority of people would better understand the need for change if presented with the facts and the stories. It’s a subject many would like to avoid thinking about, but we need to do everything in our power to advocate for the protection of our youth.