A thought-provoking documentary and discussion on the juvenile justice system
Within a few minutes into watching the documentary, “They Call Us Monsters,” screened at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management last month, I thought I knew how the film would turn out. It would be about redemption, because that’s the kind of movies, even documentaries, we like to see. But, I was wrong.
While the filmmakers did all they could to humanize the young prisoners’ stories, the facts on the ground didn’t change. Jarad, 16, was sentenced to 200 years to life for four attempted murders while Juan, also 16, was looking at 90 years to life for first-degree murder. Fourteen-year-old Antonio had been given a 90-years-to-life sentence for two attempted murders. Their crimes are real, and so are their victims. One, who was left paralyzed, said in the film she wanted Jarad punished, but not for life—she would settle on 50 years.
And by all accounts, even the director, Ben Lear, who got unprecedented access to the three main subjects, said expressing remorse for their crimes was not yet in these teenagers’ vocabulary. Lear is the son of legendary TV pioneer Norman Lear—“All in the Family” was one of his shows.
It’s a wrenching, yet thought-provoking documentary that shows you the pain, sorrow and destruction that sometimes happens in neighborhoods fueled by drugs, guns, gangs and poverty. As the younger Lear said, it’s a toxic cocktail. He acknowledged he was raised in a neighborhood without guns or gangs, but as kids they did stupid things, too. But it’s the guns that raise the stakes and make it more likely that serious crimes will be committed.
Could MST have made a difference?
I couldn’t help watching the documentary through the lens of Multisystemic Therapy (MST). After all, these are serious juvenile offenders. They are similar to youth that our therapists see. They are the young people that MST hopes to set on a different trajectory. Would MST have changed these kids’ lives? Of course, we’ll never know.
We do get a glimpse into their families. When one of the boys gets out of prison, we quickly see (and I mean immediately) that it won’t be long before he’s back inside. We see him smoking, drinking and returning to the life he left as a gangbanger. Sure enough, within a few months, he is re-arrested.
Now Ben Lear has taken his passion for this subject and has teamed up with James Anderson, a founding member of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition of California.
Their mission is to provide a support network for formerly incarcerated men and women, and advocate for fairer criminal-justice policies.
They provide housing, counseling and jobs—good jobs that pay $27 an hour. Giving hope that these men and women can turn their lives around. James Anderson understands redemption firsthand. He was in and out of juvenile facilities for five years until he found the strength to turn his life around.
If you haven’t seen “They Call Us Monsters,” check your local listings. It’s playing on PBS in May.
Regardless of how you feel after the film, it’s worth watching and wondering if stories like this could have a different ending.