criminal justice Criminal Law Juvenile

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.