They call us monsters

Curious about what CA’s juvenile justice system looks like in action? Look no further than They call us monsters, a new documentary that is available on Netflix and other streaming platforms. The film follows three adolescent boys as they cope with their current incarceration and hope for second chances. The young men begin to write a screenplay with an outside filmmaker that slowly reveals the traumas they’ve been through & how they’ve normalized profound live events. The stories that brought them to juvenile detention are familiar – poverty, drugs, gangs – but their ability to retain the essence of their carefree spirits in the face of lengthy prison sentences is anything but familiar to viewers. The boys laugh and joke constantly, even while disclosing the life altering dynamics that led them to their incarceration. It becomes increasingly difficult to reckon with their violent crimes as we get to know them and see them as brothers, friends, and not so unlike other teenagers we may know. This remarkable documentary leaves one floored and is a well-needed exercise in empathy and solidarity.

The United States is the only country that sentences juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole. In recent years, CA’s Juvenile Justice system has been the site of a robust reform movement. Senate Bill 260, passed by the CA legislature in 2014, allows juvenile offenders tried as adults for their crimes the possibility of parole after 15 years of incarceration. SB 260 still holds individuals responsible for their actions, but recognizes the urgent need to distinguish adolescents with still-forming brains from adults (over 7,000 CA prisoners were under the age of 18 at the time of their crime). It’s not inflammatory to claim SB 260 tremendously altered the landscape of both the juvenile and adult justice systems. Prop 57, passed by CA voters in November 2016, is most commonly know for its provision of expanding credits to incentivize early releases through the completion of educational milestones, but tucked in the language of Prop 57 was a significant change to the modus operandi of Juvenile Courts. Since the inception of Juvenile Courts, judges held the most authority in dictating the legal fate of young offenders.  But in response to growing social fears of young super predators in the late twentieth century, charging authority was transferred to prosecutors. This realignment took power from the diversionary minded judges into the hands of interventionist minded prosecutors. This move punctuated the mission of juvenile justice and was responsible for the explosion of juvenile offenders being charged and sentenced as adults. Prop 57 restored the power of the judges, and will hopefully mitigate the proliferation of juveniles tried as adults.

Juvenile Courts could be said to be one the greatest legal exports in history. First established in the US in the early 20th century, juvenile courts have since spread to almost every country in the world. The ethos of juvenile jurisdictions in treating youngsters differently than adults is precisely because they are different. Kids do dumb stuff and make mistakes, but deserve second chances because, well, they are kids. Rehabilitation & diversion is more of a focus in juvenile correctional settings, instead of, say, a force of unrelenting and inhumane incapacitation that we see at play in the criminal justice system.

Professor Franklin Zimring at UC Berkeley is perhaps the world’s leading author on juvenile justice (among other criminological topics). To inculcate a deeper understanding of the legacy of juvenile justice reference his literature:

American Juvenile Justice

– An American Travesty

– A Century of Juvenile Justice

– One More Chance: The Pursuit of Promising Intervention Strategies for Chronic Juvenile Offenders


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