A new documentary premiering at the Los Angeles Film Festival takes us inside the Compound, a high-security facility in the middle of Sylmar Juvenile Hall, where LA County houses their high-risk juvenile offenders. These are young men who will be tried as adults for violent crimes and face decades, if not hundreds of years in adult jails. As prison reform continues to be a hot topic of conversation, Ben Lear’s They Call Us Monsters hopes to give voice to those inside the Compound.
Lear originally visited the prison wanting to enrich a screenplay he was working on but once he saw the world of the young boys in the Compound, he knew he had a worthwhile doc in his hands. He attended the Compound as part of InsideOUT Writers, an organization that uses creative writing programs as a way to aid in the rehabilitation of prison inmates. As Lear describes it, nothing could have prepared him for what he encountered once he walked into the prison: this was a “classroom full of kids —these were teenagers that are so obviously that age. Not just in the throes of puberty and adolescence but of self-discovery and coming of age.”
Grappling with tough questions about what it means to convict a young teenager to a lifetime in prison without diminishing or excusing the violent crimes which these kids are accused of, They Call Us Monsters is a loud plea for our need to rethink how we understand the American justice system. Focused on the specific stories of Jarad, Antonio, and Juan, the latter two exemplifying the large Latino population that often finds itself behind bars, the project shows us how a screenwriting class allows these boys to think back to what drove them to where they are currently. As we see them crafting a short film based on their experiences, Lear gives us access to their families’ — and in one case — to their victims’ stories, balancing the fresh faces we see at the Compound with the violent crimes that landed them there.
As They Call Us Monsters hopes to broaden the conversation on juvenile offenders, here are five eye-opening facts we learned from watching Lear’s documentary.
The Los Angeles Film Festival runs June 1-9, 2016.
UPDATE 6/29/2017: They Call Us Monsters is now streaming on Netflix.
In California, juveniles between the ages of 14-17 can be tried as adults and receive sentences longer than their natural life expectancy.
This is precisely the case of the three main subjects of Lear’s documentary. We meet Jarad (arrested at 16), Antonio (at 14), and Juan (at 16) when they’re about to be tried, each facing 90 plus years in prison. All three face charges of attempted (or, in Juan’s case, first degree) murder. These are perfect examples of the way the justice system has decided to treat young men who commit violent crimes as adults. As Newt Gingrich says in a news clip at the start of Lear’s film, “There are no violent offenses that are juvenile; you rape somebody, you’re an adult; you shoot somebody, you’re an adult.”
California has a recidivism rate of over 70%, a consequence of the “tough on crime” initiatives of the past decades.
Recidivism, understood as a person’s relapse into criminal behavior, often after the person receives sanctions or undergoes intervention for a previous crime, is a key statistic that tells lawmakers and law enforcement how likely those who have gone through the system are likely to find themselves back into it. Since rehabilitation programs continue to be underfunded, the recidivism rate isn’t likely to go down.
SB 260 (passed in 2013) provides parole board hearings at 15 or 25 years post-sentencing for juvenile offenders with de facto life sentences.
The law went into effect January 1, 2014. As the Fair Sentencing For Youth organization puts it, the law “holds young people responsible for the crimes they committed, but it recognizes that youth are different from adults and gives them a chance to demonstrate remorse and rehabilitation. It establishes a parole process with different criteria.”
California is a leader in sentencing reform for juveniles.
After passing SB 260, California also passed SB 261 in 2015, a law that raised the age of SB 260 to 22-years old, affecting an additional 16,000 inmates. This offers a clear path for states around the country to see what this type of reform can look like.
InsideOUT Writers is an organization committed to reducing the recidivism rate.
As they note on their site, “the mission of InsideOUT Writers is to reduce the juvenile recidivism rate by providing a range of services that evolves to meet the needs of currently and formerly incarcerated youth and young adults.” Not only do they offer creative writing classes to offer these young people the knowledge and skills necessary to successfully re-join the community, but they have instituted an Alumni program that supports former students upon their release.