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May 9, 2007

PBS airing "When Kids Get Life"

I spotlighted in this post the new PBS Frontline special entitled "When Kids Get Life."   My TV listings indicates that this special airs tonight in my area, though a favorite reader reports to me that it may have already aired in some other parts of the country.

This terrific PBS website indicates this important show will also soon be available to watch online.  The Website also has this terrific page with a map detailing which states have offenders serving life without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles.

May 9, 2007 at 07:46 AM | Permalink


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The documentary aired in my area last night. Aside from its obvious discussion of treating juvenile as adults, the program also touches upon a wide-variety of criminal justice issues including mandatory sentencing, judicial discretion, supermax facilities, effectiveness of counsel, the felony-murder rule, and the politics of retroactive legislation to correct injustices. It is also a relatively balanced documentary with commentary from the victims' families and DAs, as well as from the prisoners and their families.

I recommend it to anyone interested in how and why we send individuals to prison.

Posted by: DEJ | May 9, 2007 11:29:37 AM

I think that, in order to truly balance the presentation, the stories of people who were victimized by juvie killers who killed, were released after a short stay, and then killed again.

Yeah, it is harsh to put a kid in jail for the rest of his life. It is also harsh to sentence some unknowable victim to death by being too lenient with a juvie killer.

You also have the moral question: should someone like Christopher Simmons or Antonio Richardson ever get out?

Posted by: federalist | May 9, 2007 12:21:00 PM

Why does a documentary have to be balanced against competing policy interests? Like you, I feel safer with a higher percentage of people in jail. But even a non-lawyer watching such a documentary would figure that these kids were convicted of a crime that, at lease according to some people, required life in prison.

Once we determine that a story must be "balanced" the choice of what to "balance" it with requires a policy determination.

But, maybe we could "balance" the History Channel's constant documentaries on Hitler with Hitler's good points, or a documentary on racism segregation's good points. This isn't a strawman argument. A choice of what to "balance" against what is a point of view, itself.

Posted by: S.cotus | May 9, 2007 2:49:08 PM

I'm curious as to what people think about this documentary. I'm a public defender and naturally lean toward the defense perspective. But even I had some issues with how the underlying facts in these young offenders' cases were portrayed. It seemed as if the filmmaker was straining to make it seem as if each defendant was railroaded -- e.g. ineffective assistance of counsel was highlighted, "the gun went off accidentally" during the robbery, innocent bystanders were snared by the felony murder rule, snitches lied to save their own skin. I couldn't help but think there were other factors at play in these cases that weren't fully portrayed. And if the issue is whether it's fair or wise to sentence juveniles to life in prison without parole, why are issues of guilt and innocence in these cases even that important? I found myself wondering more about whether the spin on these cases was just that, "spin," and less about the crux -- whether we should be punishing teenagers the same way we punish adults.

Posted by: Defender | May 9, 2007 3:21:38 PM

I was also uncomfortable about the balance and the omissions of what I thought were important factors. The DA just spouted slogans as did the spokesperson for the Dept. of Corrections. The sole spokesperson for the victims was very articulate but she was so vindictive I think she repelled some viewers. On the other hand I was very impressed with the spokespersons for juvenile court.

It appeared to me that they selected cases that should have been class B felonies (50 year max) that were converted to LWOP because of the felony-murder rule and left out LWOP cases that could have been a death penalty for an adult. If they did that on purpose then they slanted their report.

Posted by: John Neff | May 9, 2007 8:36:22 PM

A life sentence is a completely different thing when your entire life is still ahead of you, rather than already behind you. A 15 year old getting life without parole is infinitely more harsh and cruel than a 55 year old getting LWOP.

While I believe abortion should be legal until the fetus turns 18 years old (57th trimester abortion), I have serious issues with locking children up until they die decades and decades later. If the mother (in her sole discretion) wants to abort these kids, that's fine. But the taxpayers should not have to spend a million dollars keeping these kids in prison.

What really bugs me is how the state charges these kids when they're 15 or 16, then delays the trial until the kid turns 18 or 19 (post abortion age), already having hit puberty. Now the defendant has turned from a moppet-haired, cute little scrappy kid into a pimply, hairy, greasy, deep-voiced obstreperous teenager. Talk about being prejudiced from delay. These cases should have to go to trial within 6 months of the crime, otherwise it's fundamentally unfair.

Posted by: Bruce | May 10, 2007 4:08:57 AM

From a public policy standpoint, isn't this about risk allocation? Obviously, it is hard to send a kid away for life, even if he committed an awful crime. But if society is lenient to some of these killers, there will be other victims as a result. Recently, a woman was basically executed in the CNN building in Atlanta. Her assailant, a juvie murderer.

Posted by: federalist | May 10, 2007 11:21:33 AM

I think "Defender"'s point is a good one. I have not seen the documentary. But it sounds like it mixes issues - if we truly want to have a discussion about whether put kids in prison for life, then let's pick some kids who are clearly guilty to talk about. Choosing kids who may not actually be guilty needlessly complicates the picture. If you want a show about possibly innocent people serving harsh sentences, that's a different show.

Frontline's show on plea bargaining, from a couple of years ago, was outstanding. I think it's available online.

Posted by: Anon | May 10, 2007 12:45:04 PM

As an activist who works with several African-American kids serving life in Colorado,I have had mixed emotions from the start about the PBS-Frontline program. Some feel that certain cases and faces will seem more sympathetic to the public, but the issue is too complex for that type of strategy.Most of the kids I work with a there for gang-related homicides, which many feel will turn the public against 2nd chances for kids.Another aspect that isnt discussed is the class division within this issue. As documented in the Rocky Mtn.News series "Locked Up Forever",One of these kids was forgiven by his victim's mother and family even before he was named a suspect.The mother now has her own gang prevention program in her murdered child's name that was 6 years old when this tragedy occurred,she would like to see the kid released one day.This juvie has accepted full responsibilty for his actions, yet his co-conspirator still considers himself a gang member.Another Black kid got life for a hit and run, described in the Denver post's series "Teen crime,Adult time".And when you know you will file several appeals by a hired attorney,the last thing you want to do is admit guilt and responsibilty.Yet,some families have to deal with these tragedies while having continue to live as neighbors with the Mothers and relatives of those who murdered their loved ones.Its more fustrating now to see that PBS-Frontline has links to these articles in the Rocky and Denver Post available on their website for this series.If society decides that some kids deserve 2nd chances,it will have to include crimes like "gang bangin'.What I loved about the documentary was the Denver DA insistence on listening to the victims'family,we'll see if that remains the same when the request is leniency or clemency.

Posted by: Mark | May 10, 2007 1:03:30 PM

Mark, how do you deal with the risk to society of letting these guys out? For example, the case I mentioned in my earlier post?

And some crimes, e.g., those of Christopher Simmons or Antonio Richardson, simply cry out for LWOP (well, death).

Posted by: federalist | May 10, 2007 1:34:37 PM

We deal with the risk to society of letting these guys out the same way we deal with the risk to society of letting anyone out. There is a high risk that just about any convict will reoffend. Yet for some crazy reason, most convictions don’t result in life sentences.

Posted by: S.cotus | May 10, 2007 2:04:01 PM

S.cotus--true, but so what? The point is that people are advocating that juvenile murderers have a chance to be let out of prison. I would like to know what the priorities of self-described "activists" are. Is their position, too bad, society doesn't have the right to give LWOP to juvie murderers and that's just a risk society has to live with, or does he accept that there is a countervailing interest at work here and that society has a right to take steps to figure out which juvenile killers should be released.

My own view is that releases of juvenile killers above a certain age should be pretty rare, simply because, while I acknowledge that throwing a kid away for the rest of his life is harsh, the consequences of not throwing him away are harsh too. This is a moral question--not really a legal one, unless you take the position that LWOP is cruel and unusual.

Posted by: federalist | May 10, 2007 2:54:57 PM

I think thats the crux of the matter. The problem is that with LWOP most states aren't required to even give you a GED, thats they mentioned how the family is paying for trevor jone's degree. I think you have to have a minimum amount of time that has to be served, between 15 to 25 real years, but you have to have specific programs available, with written minimum requirements.Then have a broader board, like a juvenile clemency board that Colorado has considered, and like new York make those released able to remain on parole for life.But its funny that in many prisons sex offenders get mandated programs and protection, like in Colorado most sex offenders reside at FCF and all have to successfully complete programs before parole consideration, and you cant be successful if your in denial about your role in your crime,some of our private prisons have "God Pods".It would be very interesting to see if Colorado voters would agree to do a flip-flop: Increase the mandatory minimun life sentence for sex offenders from 1L to 40L,or LWOP, and give the juveniles their programs, with its funding and their prison spaces.I honestly believe the voters would support that.

Posted by: Mark | May 10, 2007 2:58:38 PM

As far as the priorites go, to me its a very simple moral question of redemption.An argument between not having the right to give LWOP but having the right to give a 40 to Life is silly to me.Especially,knowing that some states refuse to grant parole ever to violent offenders.

Posted by: Mark | May 10, 2007 3:36:54 PM

Understood. You view a juvenile killer's right to a second chance as an imperative, which certainly defensible. I don't. There are no perfect solutions to the problem of juvenile killers--as my view consigns would consign redeemable people to a life behind bars, and yours risks others. A tough world we live in, n'est-ce pas?

Posted by: federalist | May 10, 2007 8:36:57 PM

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