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August 4, 2014

Check your local PBS listings for "15 to Life: Kenneth's Story"

1234959_719906504692104_315759303_nPremiering this week on PBS stations is this new documentary titled "15 to Life: Kenneth's Story." The documentary discusses life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders with a focus on a Florida defendant, Kenneth Young, who at age 15 received four consecutive life sentences for a series of armed robberies. Here is part of the description of the film from this PBS website:

In June 2000, 14-year-old Kenneth Young was convinced by a 24-year-old neighborhood crack dealer — Kenneth's mother's supplier — to join him on a month-long spree of four armed robberies.  The older man planned the Tampa, Fla. heists and brandished the pistol— and, on one occasion, he was talked out of raping one of the victims by his young partner.  Fortunately, no one was physically injured during the crimes, although the trauma that resulted was immeasurable.

When they were caught, Kenneth didn't deny his part.  It was his first serious scrape with the law.  But at 15, he was tried under Florida law as an adult.  Astoundingly, he received four consecutive life sentences — guaranteeing that he would die in prison.  15 to Life: Kenneth's Story follows the young African-American man’s battle for release, after more than 10 years of incarceration, much of it spent in solitary confinement.  The film is also a disturbing portrait of an extraordinary fact: The United States is the only country in the world that condemns juveniles to life without parole.

Kenneth’s sentence was not a rarity.  As 15 to Life shows, there are more than 2,500 juveniles serving life sentences in the United States for non-lethal crimes, as well as for murder.  In the 1990s, many states reacted to a rise in violent youth crimes by amending their laws to allow more juveniles to be tried as adults.  Then, in 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Graham v. Florida that life sentences for juveniles convicted of crimes other than murder were unconstitutional.  That made 77 Florida inmates, including Kenneth, eligible for early release.  But how would the Florida courts, historically in favor of juvenile life sentences, apply the Supreme Court decision to a decade-old case?...

At the core of the story, of course, stands Kenneth, now 26, who is candid about his crimes.  He says he has followed a path of self-improvement and is remorseful for what he did, even as he remains flabbergasted about his punishment.  (Oddly enough, in a separate trial, Jacques Bethea, the older man who organized the robberies and who carried the gun, received a single life sentence.)

At his hearing for a reduced sentence, Kenneth tells the court, "I have lived with regret every day ... I have been incarcerated for 11 years and I have taken advantage of every opportunity available for me in prison to better myself ... I am no longer the same person I used to be.  First Corinthians, Chapter 13, Verse 11 says: 'When I was a child I thought as a child.  When I became a man I put away all childish things.'  I want to turn around and apologize to my victim for what I did."

Kenneth's plight elicits mixed reactions.  While some of his victims are inclined to see him let go, others, along with the prosecutor, defend the original punishment.  Kenneth's contention that the older man coerced his cooperation by threatening his mother is dismissed, because he didn't speak up as a 15-year-old at his original trial.  And arguments that Kenneth's new sentence should take into account his rehabilitation may not convince this Florida court.

UPDATE A helpful reader noted that through September 3, folks can view the program online at the PBS website here.

August 4, 2014 at 10:36 PM | Permalink

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Here in the UK we'll be watching Kids Behind Bars (ITV) - focusing on kids in Indiana's Wabash Valley Correctional Facility. Not looking forward to it.

Posted by: peter | Aug 5, 2014 12:54:30 PM

Review of Kids Behind Bars (UK 5thAug2014)
The Guardian, Wednesday 6 August 2014
Kids Behind Bars (ITV) bore all the hallmarks of a bleak examination of America's broken justice system. But it wasn't that, quite. Yes, it was about teenagers doing unimaginable stretches in a maximum security facility big enough to have a dedicated block for underage offenders. But there was also an emphasis on the humanity at work behind the fences. Block D staff take seriously their obligation to raise and educate deeply troubled boys, in an environment designed to offer shelter from the general prison population.

Lest we forget, they are also boys who have committed serious crimes. To be tried as an adult in the state of Indiana, you must have repeatedly reoffended in the youth system, or done something of a particularly horrific nature. Jesus, aged 17, is serving 65 years for murder. Marquise, meanwhile, is serving 15 years for aggravated battery, a charge that rather obscures the nature of his offence: he joined his mother and uncle in a concerted attack that left the victim dead of a gunshot wound. "They charged me like a man," he said. "I'm gonna step up like a man and do my time." Having turned 18, he will soon be moving in with the adult prisoners.

For some of the boys it's likely that prison provides a more stable home environment than anything life outside has to offer. "We have several in there right now that have seen a parent kill another parent," said case worker Alita.

This was a sobering look at an intractable problem; it left one feeling that Block D was a regrettable but wholly necessary part of the penal landscape, a place where young offenders are cared for as children by a state that didn't have the sense to try them as children. But if you were simply looking to be outraged by America's broken justice system, you needed to look no further than Blake, who just turned 18 in jail. Blake's crime – committed when he was 16 – was to break into what he thought was an empty house with four of his friends, only for one of them to be shot dead by the homeowner while the rest cowered in a closet. Under Indiana law, it is possible for the four surviving burglars to be charged with the murder of their friend. Blake is currently serving a 55-year sentence.

Posted by: peter | Aug 6, 2014 9:18:30 AM

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