15 to Life: Kenneth’s Story Research Center

Welcome to the research center for the film “15 to Life”! We hope to enrich your educational experience so we invite you to take some time to look over the material we’ve assembled on this page for you. If you’re a teacher, please don’t forget to check out the study guide and teachers forum for help in deciding how you might like to use the film in your class.

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[su_tab title=”About the Filmmaker”]
Nadine Pequeneza

Nadine Pequeneza began her career as a broadcast journalist working with Canada’s flagship news and current affairs programs – CTV’s W5 and CBC’s The National. For the past fifteen years she’s been creating award-winning documentaries for Canadian and international audiences. Experienced in observational, biographical and dramatized documentaries, Nadine strives to tell character-driven stories that captivate, entertain and educate. Her work has screened at festivals around the world from Toronto, to Milan, to Prague to Sichuan. She is a 4-time Gemini Award Nominee in both directing and writing categories. Among her feature documentaries: INSIDE DISASTER HAITI – Gemini Nominee for Best Directing in a Documentary Program 2011, Special Jury Award Sichuan Film Festival 2011, Official selection One World International Human Rights Documentary Festival, and Milano Film Festival, 2011. ARISTIDE’S HAITI – Gold Plaque Chicago International Film Festival 2006, Gemini nominee for Best Writing in a Documentary Program, 2006. RAISING CASSIDY – Official selection Hot Docs Toronto International Festival, Rencontres Internationales du Documentaires de Montréal, 2003.[/su_tab]
[su_tab title=”Director’s Notes”]

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 very 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 multiple armed robberies at the age of 14 and 15, I set out to answer these questions.

Invariably when you’re filming, people stop and ask what you’re doing. Each time that happened with this film, I told the questioner that we were making a documentary about kids who get sentenced to life in prison. The reaction was always the same: “Children? How old? In the United States?” This last question invariably ended with a disbelieving headshake when I explained that other than Somalia, the U.S. is the only country in the world that sentences children to die in prison. Yet despite this common public disapproval of life sentences for children, I have found strong support for it among many prosecutors, judges and legislators. Why?

I believe that, as a society, we’ve become engrossed in the sordid details of youth crimes. Every day we’re bombarded with stories of delinquent youth. We’ve labeled our children “super predators.” And we watch television shows like Killer Kids. Victims’ rights groups have become the most vocal lobbyists opposing juvenile sentencing reform, even though not all victims think alike. I wanted to tell a different story, one that shattered stereotypes and put a child’s face on the issue. By focusing on one case, that of Kenneth Young, I wanted to show the complicated nature of his relationship with his mother, the absence of social safety nets to help Kenneth and young people like him, and the injustice that is inherent in trying children as adults.

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, which ruled life sentences for juveniles convicted of crimes other than murder were unconstitutional, some 80 child offenders have been resentenced. Typically, those who have been released have been 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 U.S. 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 Young’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.[/su_tab]
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Roper, Graham, Miller

The U.S. Supreme Court Graham v. Florida decision – upon which Kenneth Young’s resentencing was based – is part of a continuum of SCOTUS decisions that have limited the culpability of children, and the State’s ability to punish children as adults.

In the landmark decision, Roper v. Simmons issued on March 1, 2005, the United States Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that it is unconstitutional to impose the death penalty for a crime committed by a child under the age of 18. The Court ruled that a death sentence imposed on a minor violates the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.

In his opinion for the majority, Justice Kennedy wrote, “When a juvenile offender commits a heinous crime, the state can exact forfeiture of some of the most basic liberties, but the state cannot extinguish his life and his potential to attain a mature understanding of his own humanity.” Roper v. Simmons, No. 03-633, 543 U.S. _ (slip op. at 20) (2005)

The Court cited adolescent development research finding that children’s brains – not just their bodies – are not fully developed, and as a result, they do not have adult levels of judgment or ability to assess risks and the consequences of their actions. The Court noted that children are more susceptible to peer pressure than adults and have little power to escape harmful environments. Because of where they are developmentally, children also have greater potential for rehabilitation. The Court concluded that children are categorically less culpable than adults.

Justice Kennedy wrote, “From a moral standpoint, it would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility exists that a minor’s character deficiencies will be reformed.” Roper v. Simmons, No. 03-633, 543 U.S. _ (slip op. at 16) (2005)

Following the Roper decision, on May 17, 2010 the Graham v. Florida decision limited the most severe punishment for children after the death penalty, life without parole. The Graham ruling bans juvenile life without parole for non-homicide crimes.

Justice Kennedy authored 5-4 decision in Graham v. Florida that held that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment does not permit the imposition of a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for youth under the age of 18 in cases involving certain crimes.

The Constitution prohibits the imposition of a life without parole sentence on a juvenile offender who did not commit homicide. – Graham v. Florida, No. 08-7412, slip. op. at 31, 560 U.S. (2010)

The limited culpability of such offenders; and the severity of these sentences all lead the Court to conclude that the sentencing practice at issue is cruel and unusual.” – Graham v. Florida, No. 08 – 7412, slip. op. at 23, 560 U.S. (2010)

Two years later June 25, 2012 in Miller v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court banned mandatory life without parole for juveniles for all crimes. Juveniles convicted of murder can still be sentenced to life without parole, but judges must take into consideration their maturity and circumstance.

Such mandatory penalties, by their nature, preclude a sentence from taking account of an offender’s age and the wealth of characteristics and circumstances attendant to it. Under these schemes, every juvenile will receive the same sentence as every other—the 17-year- old and the 14-year-old, the shooter and the accomplice, the child from a stable household and the child from a chaotic and abusive one. And still worse, each juvenile (including these two 14year-olds) will receive the same sentence as the clear majority of adults committing similar homicide offenses—but really, as Graham noted, a greater sentence than those adults will serve. In meting out the death penalty, the elision of all these differences would be strictly forbidden. And once again, Graham indicates that a similar rule should apply when a juvenile confronts a sentence of life (and death) in prison. – Miller v. Alabama, No. 10–9646, slip op. at 14 (U.S. June 25, 2012).

In summing up all three decisions, Roper, Graham and Miller the U.S. Supreme Court said the following:

Our decisions rested not only on common sense—on what “any parent knows”—but on science and social science as well. Roper, 543 U.S., at 569. In Roper, we cited studies showing that “‘[o]nly a relatively small proportion of adolescents’” who engage in illegal activity “‘develop entrenched patterns of problem behavior.’” Id., at 570. Id., at 570 (quoting Steinberg & Scott, Less Guilty by Reason of Adolescence: Developmental Immaturity, Diminished Responsibility, and the Juvenile Death Penalty, 58 Am. Psychologist 1009, And in Graham, we noted that “developments in psychology and brain science continue to show fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds”—for example, in “parts of the brain involved in behavior control.” 560 U. S., at (slip op., at 17). We reasoned that those findings—of transient rashness, proclivity for risk, and inability to assess consequences—both lessened a child’s“moral culpability” and enhanced the prospect that, as the years go by and neurological development occurs, his “‘deficiencies will be reformed.’” Id., at (slip op., at 18) (quoting Roper, 543 U. S., at 570). – Miller v. Alabama, No. 10–9646, slip op. at 8-9 (U.S. June 25, 2012).[/su_tab][/su_tabs]

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