Rehabilitation Versus Retribution: Juvenile Justice System Reform

Rehabilitation Versus Retribution: Juvenile Justice System Reform

October 28, 2015 | Nadine Pequeneza

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Few people would question whether 13- and 14-year-olds need guidance. Parents especially recognize that children are easily influenced, that they can be impulsive, and that empathy and cruelty are both learned behaviors. Given that we know these things about children, I was shocked to learn that kids as young as 12 years old are being sentenced to die in prison.  

Few people would question whether 13- and 14-year-olds need guidance. Parents especially recognize that children are easily influenced, that they can be impulsive, and that empathy and cruelty are both learned behaviors. Given that we know these things about children, I was shocked to learn that kids as young as 12 years old are being sentenced to die in prison.  

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 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 four armed robberies at the ages of 14 and 15, I set out to answer these questions. 

When I came across Kenneth Young’s story in a Tampa, Florida, newspaper, the brutality of his sentence and the circumstances of his crime, I knew he could make people reconsider whether it is just to sentence a juvenile to life in prison. For me, the practice of sentencing children to die in prison represents the most tragic outcome of failed tough-on-crime policies. The US Supreme Court’s Graham decision, which banned juvenile life without parole for non-homicide crimes in 2010, signaled an important shift in the way we treat young offenders: a reorientation toward rehabilitation.   

The United States is the only country in the world that routinely condemns children to life without parole. 15 to Life: Kenneth’s Story is the story of one of those children, now a young man, seeking a second chance in Florida. Imprisoned for more than a decade, the film follows Kenneth through his resentencing hearing, revealing a justice system with thousands of young people serving sentences intended for society’s most dangerous criminals. 

Since the film’s broadcast on PBS, I have been working with Point of View’s community outreach team and the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth to educate audiences about juvenile life without parole and the legal reforms currently underway because of US Supreme Court decisions. So far we have screened the film in 50 communities across 29 states—at conferences, libraries, schools, film festivals, legal clinics, prisons, and legislatures. In July, 15 to Life will screen on Capitol Hill with simultaneous screenings in five states where the highest number of juvenile lifers are imprisoned.   

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, some 80 child juvenile offenders have been resentenced. Typically, those who have been released are 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 US 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’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. 

 

Nadine Pequeneza is the director, producer, and writer of 15 to Life: Kenneth’s Story, as well as impact producer for the film’s outreach campaign. The film has been nominated for a 2015 Media for a Just Society Award. Nadine has been making documentary films for the past 15 years. Experienced in observational, biographical, and dramatized documentaries, Nadine strives to tell character-driven stories that captivate, entertain and educate. Her work has been screened at film festivals around the world.