They Call Us Monsters – A Look Inside the Juvenile Justice System: A Film Review and Commentary

Author: Kennedy Womack

Throughout my time in quarantine due to COVID-19, I have been watching many movies that I may not have had the chance to watch prior to the pandemic. I recently watched an incredibly moving documentary, titled They Call Us Monsters, currently being shown on the Starz channel. I happened to catch onto this documentary, knowing nothing about it. I later learned it was quite popular and won a lot of awards.. I turned it on because the subject matter piqued my interest, as I have been interning in the Hamilton County Juvenile Public Defender Office for almost a year now, and I wanted to hear a story regarding juvenile justice that would give me more insight into the topic. What I did not realize is how truly moved I would be following the documentary, as it followed the story of three young men in the system. 

As a matter of background, They Call Us Monsters goes behind the walls of the Compound, a high-security facility where Los Angeles houses its “most violent” juvenile criminals. PBS Independent Lens posits the following message when describing the film’s juvenile protagonists: “To their advocates, they’re kids. To the system, they’re adults. To their victims, they’re monsters.” 

Photo of three incarcerated young men, as part of the documentary titled They Call Us Monsters
Source: The M Report

The film follows three young offenders who sign up to take a screenwriting class with producer Gabe Cowan as they await their respective trials. Arrested at age 16, Jarad faces 200-years-to-life for four attempted murders. Juan, also arrested at 16, faces 90-to-life for first-degree murder; Antonio was arrested at 14 and faces 90-to-life for two attempted murders. As the boys work with Gabe on their screenplay, their complex life stories are revealed. Halfway through the screenwriting class, Antonio returns to juvenile court and is released with time served but, back in the neighborhood he came from, he quickly falls into the same patterns of drug use and gang life that led to his incarceration in the first place. Meanwhile, the realities of Jarad’s and Juan’s crimes and their pending trials set in. One of the victims of Jarad’s shooting is only 17 and is permanently confined to a wheelchair. And, even if he is released, Juan faces deportation and separation from his family, including his infant son.  

In the film’s Director’s Statement, director Ben Lear writes:

The Compound is a jail within a jail—a high-security facility in the middle of Sylmar Juvenile Hall. Outside its gates, kids play soccer and kickball on a grassy field. These minors are being tried as juveniles for non-violent crimes. They will return home in a matter of months. Inside the Compound, the kids look the same—almost entirely Hispanic and African-American boys dressed in county grays—only they’re not allowed on the grass. They won’t be going home anytime soon. They are LA County’s high-risk juvenile offenders, tried as adults for violent crimes and facing decades, if not hundreds of years in adult prison.

Lear continues in the statement: 

When I first entered the Compound in early 2013, I expected to find stocky, steely-eyed gangsters staring me down, wishing to jump me if given the chance. Either I’d forgotten how young teenagers really look, or I’d watched too much Locked Up Raw, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Instead I met a classroom full of kids, giddy and eager to tell their stories. They went around the room and shared their career goals. Sixteen-year old Martin said, ‘I might want to be an architect. Or an artist. There are so many things I don’t even know about yet. But I’m excited to learn!’ Then he paused and added, ‘I just hope I get the chance.’ He faced 100 years to life for first-degree murder. For days after, I couldn’t stop thinking about this world I’d stumbled into. The narrow space between a lost childhood and a stolen adulthood where these kids managed to live, laugh and discover their potential. When I learned about an upcoming California Senate Bill that would provide them the opportunity for a second chance, I knew I had a film to make. 

As a law student who has worked in juvenile justice, I can attest to exactly what Lear describes. His words, “the narrow space between a lost childhood and a stolen adulthood” hit home for me. Time and time again, I have witnessed children charged with crimes that could put them behind bars for years. But they are CHILDREN. I constantly think about where I was at that age. I cannot imagine being 15 or 16 and forced to live the rest of my life in a cell. These juveniles are so young and have their whole lives ahead of them, so how can our system take that away? 

On October 8, 2014, the 20th anniversary of his 1994 crime bill, President Bill Clinton predicted that sentencing reform would become one of the hot-button issues in 2016. “We basically took a shotgun to a problem that needed a .22,” he admitted in his statement. Many years later, we are still dealing with the consequences of “tough on crime”: heavily overpopulated prisons, a dearth of educational programming and reentry services, and a recidivism rate of over 80percent, according to the Department of Justice . Chief among these problems is our treatment of juvenile offenders. While juvenile crime has steadily decreased since 1994, we have continued to pass tougher and tougher juvenile crime laws. 

State juvenile courts with delinquency jurisdiction handle cases in which juveniles are accused of acts that would be crimes if committed by adults. In 45 states, the maximum age of juvenile court jurisdiction is age 17. Five states – Georgia, Michigan, Missouri, Texas, and Wisconsin – now draw the juvenile/adult line at age 16. Missouri raised the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to age 17 in 2018 and the law will go into effect January 1, 2021. Michigan raised the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to 17 in 2019 and that law, too, will go into effect in 2021. 

Photo of an incarcerated man in an orange jumpsuit
Source: The Playlist

However, all states have transfer laws that allow or require young offenders to be prosecuted as adults for more serious offenses, regardless of their age. Four forms of transfer laws are: 

Statutory Exclusion – State law excludes some classes of cases involving juvenile age offenders from juvenile court, granting adult criminal court exclusive jurisdiction over some types of offenses. Murder and serious violent felony cases are most commonly “excluded” from juvenile court. 

Judicially Controlled Transfer – All cases against juveniles begin in juvenile court and must literally be transferred by the juvenile court to the adult court. 

Prosecutorial Discretion Transfer – Some categories of cases have both juvenile and criminal jurisdiction, so prosecutors may choose to file charges in either the juvenile or adult court. The choice is considered to be within the prosecutor’s executive discretion. 

Once an adult, always an adult” Transfer – The law requires prosecution in the adult court of any juvenile who has been criminally prosecuted in the past, usually regardless of whether the current offense is serious or not. 

The message of state legislatures regarding treatment of juvenile offenders rings loud and clear: “These kids are lost, defined by and no better than their worst act.” But due to recent advances in brain science and a handful of Supreme Court decisions, we have started to once again see juveniles as different from adults. A series of recent landmark cases in the U.S. Supreme Court has evolved to change our legal responses to juvenile offending. They have abolished the death penalty for crimes committed during adolescence, found mandatory life-without-parole sentences for murder in violation of the 8th Amendment, and eliminated life-without-parole sentences for crimes less than murder. In Massachusetts, life sentences for juveniles were ruled unconstitutional, and the review of cases in which those sentences were given in the past has already started. A significant part of the argument for these decisions included an understanding of adolescent brain development. While society’s attitudes will ultimately dictate the shape of law, science can be used to confirm and dispel common ideas about teenage behavior to forge a more scientifically sound and financially viable system for adolescent reform.  

Scientists have confirmed that the adolescent brain is still developing, that it is highly subject to reward and peer influence, and that its rate of development varies widely across the population. They have developed basic tools that offer data with which to judge the potential for juvenile desistance, recidivism, and rehabilitation. With its ability to examine the workings of the teenage brain, neuroscience is improving our understanding of adolescents, and potentially, juvenile offenders. Through their window into the brain, neuroscientists understand, for example, that adolescents mature at markedly varied rates. The presumed trajectory of brain development, demonstrated in existing “bright line” age cutoffs for voting, military service, and drinking, however, is not reflective of this variability in brain maturity. Similarly, neuroimaging research by CLBB faculty clarifies that it is teenagers’ heightened vulnerability to reward that drives risky behavior, contrary to long-standing beliefs that teenagers are unable to gauge risks. They can often recognize risks, but incomplete development of brain mechanisms related to modulation of impulsive behavior reduces their tendency to heed those risks. 

Science may also help us understand which juvenile offenders are likely to commit future crimes and which may not. A longitudinal study, “Pathways to Desistance,” has collected significant data on factors such as substance abuse and instability in daily routine that lead to youth recidivism. The seminal paper, “Rewiring juvenile justice: the intersection of development neuroscience and legal policy,” elucidates how key new scientific findings about the development of the adolescent brain may inform policy. 

Now that science has confirmed what juvenile justice advocates have been pushing for, there is a new movement for a change in societal attitudes towards juveniles. But the fight is not over. Sentencing reform must be enacted in states where juveniles are possibly subject to a “life without parole” sentence. Juveniles should be given the opportunity to go before a parole board for possibility of release when tried as adults. Juveniles should be given graduated sentencing, rather than immediately being locked up. And, importantly, rehabilitation should be considered as the main goal for juvenile justice. These are, ultimately, kids. As the film They Call Us Monsters illustrates, at the end of the day, they are adolescents who made mistakes. They deserve a second chance and a life to lead. They have the ability to be upstanding citizens, if we give them the chance. This film deeply motivated me to fight for them, and you should too. I encourage each of you to watch this film, follow their stories, and empathize with each of them. And then get out there on the frontlines and push for justice – for them and for all juveniles incarcerated. 

photo of author

Kennedy Womack is a University of Cincinnati College of Law Graduate (Class of 2020). During her time at UC Law, she was active in various student organizations, including the Freedom Center Journal, Human Rights Quarterly, Student Ambassadors, Student Bar Association, and the Willem C. Vis International Commercial Arbitration Moot Court Team. She has shown a consistent dedication to community and pro bono work, holding volunteer internship positions at the Ohio Justice & Policy Center and the Hamilton County Public Defender – Juvenile Division. She currently is studying for the bar exam and will be moving to Florida afterwards, where she has accepted a position as a public defender in Fort Myers.

They Call Us Monsters – A Look Inside the Juvenile Justice System:  A Film Review and Commentary

Get Out of Jail Free

Guest Contributor: Darceny Winston 

           Imagine playing Monopoly, but each player starts with a different amount of funds. You start the game, buy a property, then land on “Go to Jail”. You move your piece to that space then wait until your next turn to pay the $50 to get out of jail. Unfortunately, you started the game with only $50, which you already spent on your property, so you must sit in jail to figure out how to pay the “get out of jail” fee.  While sitting in jail, you cannot collect any payment from that property and in fact, you must sell your property to make enough money to get out of jail. However, the player who started with $100 and gets sent to jail has no issue leaving the jail quickly. Essentially, this is the inequality of monetary bail.

Freedom Should Not Be a Game of Chance

            Judges set bail to ensure people attend trial and to keep the public safe by keeping violent or repeat offenders in jail. However, when a judge sets a bond too high for a person to meet, that person is restrained in jail until his/her trial.  The people affected by monetary bail are awaiting trial; they have yet to go through a trial and be found guilty of the offense they were charged with. Rather, they are forced to wait in jail for their trial solely because they cannot afford to pay bail, all while they are presumed innocent.

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Source: Chris Potter/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

            Nationally, minorities are more likely to be arrested than white individuals because of over-policing in their communities. For example, once arrested, African Americans, particularly those 18 through 29, receive higher bond fees than white individuals. The higher likelihood of African Americans having contact with the justice system blended with the expectation to pay a higher bail fee results in an inequality of minorities being detained. A 2012 study discovered that the rate of African American individuals detained in jail until trial was almost five times higher than detained white individuals.

            According to a 2015 local news report, 51percent of inmates processed in the Hamilton County Justice Center in 2014 were African American. However, the number of arrestees is twice the amount of the African American population as a whole residing in Hamilton County. This implies that the African American community in Hamilton County is disproportionately affected by the justice system. Because African American individuals are more likely to be arrested and detained, their incarceration results in long term suffering for their families and communities. Incarceration leads to job loss, which leads to income loss, which leads to eviction, and even leads to losing custody of children.

            Cincinnati is making great strides in correcting the inequality of monetary bail. In April 2019, the Cincinnati City Council approved a motion eliminating city prosecutors from requesting monetary bail for non-violent misdemeanor offenders. While this was primarily enacted to eliminate wealth as a factor in determining who is detained in jail, there was also motivation to conserve financial resources as the Ohio Justice and Policy Center discovered that incarcerating one person at the Hamilton County Justice Center costs about $69 per day.

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Source: Fandom

            Before the motion was passed, about 75percent of people arrested were forced to wait for their trial in the Hamilton County Justice Center solely because they could not afford to pay bail. City Council, led by Councilmember P.G. Sittenfeld, shifted from monetary bonds by instructing city prosecutors to seek an “own recognizance” bond that allows individuals accused of non-violent misdemeanor offenses to leave jail before trial without being subjected to a bond fee.

One Man’s Low Bail is Another Man’s High Bail

            The reform effort is not without push-back from the Hamilton County Prosecutor’s Office. Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters does not believe there is a need for a bail reform effort in the county court system and is “baffled why people continue to argue that bail reform is an issue in Hamilton County.” The Hamilton County Prosecutor’s Office agrees that non-violent misdemeanor offenders do not always need to be held before trial and releasing these individuals before trial saves taxpayer money. However, the Prosecutor’s Office has discretion in seeking bonds when necessary, such as to ensure the arrestee attends trial or to protect the community. While the Prosecutor’s Office may only suggest high bonds when it is necessary, the Prosecutor’s Office is assuming the low bonds recommended are, in fact, low. By not taking into account an individual’s socio-economic status, the Prosecutor’s Office recommendation of a $1,000 bond with the requirement that $100 must be paid before leaving is effectively the same as a $100,000 bond with a requirement of a payment of $1,000 for members of low-income communities.

            The Hamilton County Public Defender’s Office realizes it is not enough to require the city prosecutor to release non-violent misdemeanor offenders without imposing monetary bail. Rather, there needs to be a complete bail reform extending to the Hamilton County Prosecutor’s Office. Since the county is not currently required to release non-violent misdemeanor offenders on their own recognizance, the Public Defender’s Office is urging the judges setting bail to consider not only the likelihood of an arrestee reoffending, but also the individual’s ability to pay when determining the bail amount. If an individual does not have an income or has a low income, requiring him or her to pay any fee in order to be released would constitute excessive bail under the Eighth Amendment. Therefore, the Hamilton County Prosecutor’s Office should adopt a blanket policy that allows for releasing non-violent misdemeanor offenders.

Goals for the Future

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            While Cincinnati as a city is taking steps in improving the bail system to be less centered on a person’s wealth, there are still improvements that can be made in Hamilton County. Leading the way in improving the bail system on a national level is Harris County, Texas. In 2018, Harris County became the first case to question the cash bail system in federal courts. Harris County was using a fee schedule system to set bail based on the charge. A woman filed a lawsuit against Harris County claiming that using a fee schedule in determining her bail amount violated her due process and equal protection rights because this process allowed those who could afford bail to pay and punished those who could not. The court determined the fee schedule was unconstitutional because it discriminated against misdemeanor defendants who could not afford to pay their bail. Harris County is now implementing a policy of automatic release of low-level misdemeanor detainees, as well as providing resources to them while they await their court date, such as reminders of when they must appear in court and transportation support services.

The City of Cincinnati is working to make arraignments fair for individuals of all socio-economic backgrounds. However, Hamilton County needs to recognize the inherent discriminatory issues with monetary bail, take a lesson from Harris County, Texas, and allow all non-violent misdemeanor arrestees a “get out of jail free” card, rather than the select few who can afford it.

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Darceny Winston is a 2L at the University of Cincinnati College of Law. She has a passion for criminal defense and is currently a fellow for the Ohio Innocence Project and an executive member of the Criminal Law Society. Though originally from Louisiana, she now resides in Northern Kentucky with her 2 cats.

Get Out of Jail Free

With Great Discretion Comes Great Responsibility

Brady Violations in the Story of Michael Sutton’s Wrongful Conviction.

Nikita Srivastava (’19)

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Michael Sutton with his sister, Lucretia Sutton.  

Do you remember the day you finished high school? I want you to go back to that time. Imagine, you’re 17 years old again: You’re hanging out with your friends; you’re excited about the end of high school and the start of a new beginning.  Days before your graduation, you go out with your closest friends and stay out all night. You dance, laugh, and celebrate the first steps to a bright new future. For most of us, that celebration night ends with hugging good-bye, quietly sneaking into our houses without waking up our parents, and sleeping in the next day. For most of us, it’s a great night. And, for most us, the night does not end with us being arrested for an attempted murder we did not commit. Unfortunately, that is what happened to Michael Sutton.

On the night he celebrated finishing high school, Michael found himself with three of his closest friends being arrested. Instead of hugging their friends goodnight and returning to the comforts of their home, Michael and his best friends spent the night in jail for a crime they did not commit. Instead of going off to college and getting his degree in business, Michael was sentenced to 41 years to life in prison.

Continue reading “With Great Discretion Comes Great Responsibility”

With Great Discretion Comes Great Responsibility




Issue One: Light At The End of the Tunnel or a Risky Gamble?

Everyone agrees that we need to fight drug addiction in Ohio. The Cincinnati area has had some of the highest opioid overdoses and deaths in the country. There aren’t many local families that haven’t been touched by the opioid crisis in some manner, my own family included.On the ballot in 2018 in Ohio, there is a proposed amendment to the Ohio Constitution that would reduce the crime of possession of personal amounts of illegal substances to misdemeanors not resulting in jail terms. Additionally, the amendment would make it harder to incarcerate drug users on probation or parole for failing drug tests. This proposed amendment on the ballot is known as Issue One, and it has strong proponents and opponents.

Continue reading “Issue One: Light At The End of the Tunnel or a Risky Gamble?”

Issue One: Light At The End of the Tunnel or a Risky Gamble?




The Real Problem With Snitches: How Snitch Testimony Leads to Wrongful Convictions

The Karl and Wayne Story

Nikita Srivastava (’19)

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Karl Willis

Honest, kind, and passionate. These are only a few words I can use to describe Karl Willis and Wayne Braddy. Karl is a spiritual man who started a mentoring program called “Leave the Streets Behind.” The goal of this program is to help misguided young adults become healthy and productive citizens. Wayne, on the other hand, is a creative man who performs live music whenever he gets the chance. Both of these men jump at any opportunities to expand their education and help others. Karl and Wayne are warm, humble men who care about their families and communities. They share their joy with their loved ones; they want to help others; but, more importantly, they care about making a difference in their community. Where are they today?

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Wayne Braddy

Karl is currently housed at Allen Correctional Institution in Lima, Ohio, and Wayne is housed at North Central Correctional Complex in Marion, Ohio. Both are serving 23 years to life sentence for a murder they did not commit.

Continue reading “The Real Problem With Snitches: How Snitch Testimony Leads to Wrongful Convictions”

The Real Problem With Snitches: How Snitch Testimony Leads to Wrongful Convictions




Innocence March: Recognizing the Wrongfully Convicted

Guest Contributor: Brian Howe

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Attorney Brian Howe with OIP fellow Nikita Srivastava (’19)

On March 24, 2018, more than five hundred men and women marched through Memphis Tennessee.  Most of them had spent a large part of their lives in prison– a combined 3,501 years among them– for crimes they did not commit.

The march was the closing event for the 2018 Innocence Network conference, a gathering of exonorees and lawyers working on behalf of those wrongfully convicted.  Exonorees came from every state in the country and from countries across the globe. They marched with attorneys and advocates and family. They held signs demanding change in the system that had wronged them.  Demanding accountability. Demanding, at least, public recognition that innocent men and women were being arrested and convicted by agents acting on the public’s behalf.

Continue reading “Innocence March: Recognizing the Wrongfully Convicted”

Innocence March: Recognizing the Wrongfully Convicted




Ru-El Sailor Exonerated!

Finally home, finally free.

Author: Nikita Srivastava (’19)

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Right after Ru-El Sailor’s release. Andrew Radin (’18), Ru-El Sailor, and Jennifer Bergeron.

Today Ru-El Sailor is a free man, after spending 15 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. Over the years, Sailor continuously maintained and fought to prove his innocence. Then, finally, on March 28, 2018, the Cuyahoga County Court vacated his sentence.

How Sailor got Wrongly Convicted

In November 2002, Sailor was hanging out with his friends at a bar on the East Side of Cleveland. Across town, Nicole and Cordell Hubbard got into a dispute with Omar Clark . The matter got out of hands – threats, guns, and then shots rang out, leaving Clark dead.  Cuyahoga County prosecutors roped in Sailor who Cordell Hubbard’s best friend at the time, wrongly believing that Sailor was the second man in this fatal shooting. Sailor testified that he was not the shooter nor was involved in this violent outburst. However, after a trial that included shady eye witness testimony that could not place Sailor at the scene, a jury still convicted Sailor. The court sentenced him to 28 years to life with the possibility of parole.

Continue reading “Ru-El Sailor Exonerated!”
Ru-El Sailor Exonerated!

Fighting the Good Fight

The Honorable Judge Shira Scheindlin

Nikita Srivastava (’19)

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Hon. Shira Scheindlin

Advocate. Lawyer. Engaged citizen.

These are only a few words Professor Janet Moore used to describe the Honorable Shira Scheindlin, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York (ret.), this year’s Judge-in Residence at the University of Cincinnati College of Law.

I had the pleasure to attend her lecture on Race and Policing, and have lunch with her the following day. As a law student, I’ve always told myself that I will be the change I want to see to paraphrase Mathama Gandhi. But, like many other law school students, I get bogged down by the environment at the law school. I stress out most of the time. I don’t get enough sleep. I find myself comparing me to other people making me insecure. I constantly fight the urges to lash out because of insecurities. In just two years, I forgot why I wanted to be a lawyer. However, Judge Shira Scheindlin reminded me why I made that choice.

Continue reading “Fighting the Good Fight”

Fighting the Good Fight




A Plea for More Gun Control

A Student’s Perspective on Gun Control.

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Jade Robinson (’20)

Guest Contributor, Jade Robinson (’20)

After the recent tragedy in Florida, we need to ask legislatures that if not now, then when? When will our legislature overpower the lobbyists and the NRA and create change in this nation’s gun control policy?

When my British family members came to the United States, their jaws dropped when we mentioned going to a shooting range for fun. In England, shooting ranges , like the ones in the United States, do not exist. In fact, the U.S. is the only industrialized country that has experienced multiple devastating mass shootings and extremely high firearm mortality rates; also, the U.S has passed no major federal legislation addressing this issue. Compared to other industrialized nations, America has a major unaddressed gun violence issue.

Continue reading “A Plea for More Gun Control”

A Plea for More Gun Control




Friends of the Court: Cincinnati Law students contribute to SCOTUS ruling

By Guest Contributors Francesca Boland(’19), David Wovrosh (’19), and Prof. Janet Moore 

On June 19, 2017, Cincinnati Law students saw their work cited in a 5-4 majority opinion of the United States Supreme Court. The case, McWilliams v. Dunn, resolved a lower courtdcsxxa-xoaafsoq split over what the Constitution requires when prosecutors seek to impose the death penalty against defendants who have mental illness, but cannot afford to hire mental health experts to present an effective defense.

First-year students researched the issue during the spring semester for an amicus brief filed by the National Association for Public Defense (NAPD). The Court cited that brief in holding that Alabama courts violated a right that was clearly established in its 1985 decision, Ake v. Oklahoma.  Continue reading “Friends of the Court: Cincinnati Law students contribute to SCOTUS ruling”

Friends of the Court: Cincinnati Law students contribute to SCOTUS ruling