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'They Call Us Monsters' Documentary Offers Another Story of Juvenile Justice

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Documentaries about juvenile justice—particularly examining issues such trying juveniles as adults and life without parole sentences for young offenders—have been somewhat of a cottage industry in recent years. The PBS series "P.O.V." had one in 2014, and "Frontline" had a digital special that same year as well as one of its regular episodes a few weeks ago.

Now, the PBS show "Independent Lens" is joining the club by airing a 90-minute documentary that made the film festival circuit last year. "They Call Us Monsters" is an extended visit with three juveniles in the high security compound at Sylmar Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles. (The show airs at 10 p.m. Eastern time Monday on public television. Check local listings.)

This documentary, directed by Ben Lear (the son of legendary TV producer Norman Lear), is one of the few I have seen to feature education efforts in juvenile detention. Film producer Gabe Cowan arrives at the Compound  to teach a screenwriting class to willing participants.

He confesses he has never taught students before, but he will prove to be adept at it in 20 hourlong sessions. 

"There are so many things [the offenders] can't do from prison," Cowan says in the film, "But they can write screenplays. They can write poetry."

Four juveniles in the Compound sign up for the course, though one is sentenced after the first lesson and is soon gone from the Compound. The other three are awaiting trial in adult courts on serious charges. Juan was arrested at 16 and at the time of filming in 2014, is facing 200 years to life imprisonment for allegedly committing four attempted murders in a gang shooting. Jared, also arrested at 16, faces 90 years to life for first-degree murder for allegedly shooting an occupant of a car from a vehicle he was in. Wiry and young-looking Antonio, 14 when he was arrested, also faces a lengthy sentence for his alleged role in a gang-related attempted murder.  

The film takes the view that life sentences are too harsh for even violent juvenile offenders, and it intersperses clips from a California legislative debate going on at the time of filming over a bill to give juvenile offenders sentenced as adults a right to a parole hearing that takes their age at the time of their crimes into consideration. At least one critic found the film unconvincing on this point since its featured juveniles are charged with some pretty serious crimes.

(The film doesn't go into recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that found life-without-parole sentences for juveniles who committed non-homicide offenses, in 2010's Graham v. Florida, and even murder, in 2012's Miller v. Alabama, to be unconstitutional. The recent Frontline special looked at that issue especially in light of last year's high court decision, in Montgomery v. Louisiana, to make Miller retroactive to those juvenile offenders serving life sentences.)

The refreshing feature of "They Call Us Monsters" is the screenwriting class, where Cowan is able to draw emotion and personality out of his initially skeptical students. The students think up a story that is tied to their experiences. Juan recalls a girl for whom he had feelings that he never expressed to her. Jared and Antonio debate how soon their young male protagonist should aim for sex with the girl. 

Cowan tells the juveniles that whatever they come up with, he will film. And that happens, with scenes from the short film, "Los," interspersed with the documentary even as the juveniles are debating their scenes. 

When Cowan appears to have rewritten some lines in a draft of the screenplay, the young screenwriters are upset with him. The teacher stands firm, telling them that rewrites are a fact of life in the film business "even when you get paid $1 million." 

It would have been nice to see a little more of "Los," especially after one of the juveniles realizes (aloud) that when creating a story and a screenplay, the artist can make the outcome turn out the way he wants instead of the outcome life has dictated. 

It's not too much of a spoiler to say that all three of the juveniles end up convicted, whether by accepting plea bargains or not, and two of the three receive harsh sentences. One of the three is seemingly luckier, being released for time served. But that offender's story continues on the outside in heartbreaking fashion.

The debate over juvenile sentencing practices is likely to continue, from the courts to legislatures to the film editing room. More voices from documentaries such as "They Call Us Monsters" will help keep the debate informed.

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