As we speak, there are some 2,225 inmates in U.S. prisons serving life sentences without possibility of parole for crimes committed when they were less than 18 years of age. In the rest of the world, there are only twelve others serving such a sentence. It seems not to matter that the United States, in 1992, ratified an International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which urged rehabilitation and prohibited sentencing young offenders to life without parole. It doesn’t matter because we reserve the right to exempt ourselves in the cases of teens we deem to be “hardened criminals” who are “an extreme danger to society,” just as we exempt ourselves from any treaty or convention that inconveniences the deployment of our troops or capital. We call these children “the worst of the worst.” There just happen to be a couple of thousand worsts, their crime having been broadly defined to fit their punishment.
Ofra Bikel, the nonpareil Frontline documentary filmmaker who has previously complicated our understanding of such wounds and vexations as the O. J. Simpson verdict and the eighties witch hunt for satanic day-care child molesters, looks into the stories of five youngsters who will die in prison in the state of Colorado. Frontline apparently settled on Colorado because the state used to have a progressive juvenile-justice system with an emphasis on saving even the most troubled child, until a summer of violence in 1993 convinced the legislature that youths who committed adult crimes ought to be treated as adults; that, since adults could be sentenced to life without parole, so could youths; and that prosecutors, not judges, would determine if juveniles were tried as adults. Although a reform bill in 2006 permitted eligibility for parole after 40 years in prison, it wasn’t retroactive. So these five and 40 others like them now in the Colorado prison system will never leave.
Against a backdrop of newspaper headlines, television newscasts, and crime-scene and courtroom film footage, Bikel talks to the inmates, their parents, their siblings, their attorneys, the families of their victims, prosecutors, and advocates for various changes in the juvenile-justice system. I’ve no idea whether the cases of Jacob Ind, Nathan Ybanez, Erik Jensen, Trevor Jones, and Andrew Medina are representative of the larger prison population pool. None is female, none African-American, none a drug fiend, none mistakenly identified, none altogether innocent, only one with a previous criminal record. Their stories of extenuating circumstance are hard to evaluate: either physical and sexual abuse at home, or simply terrible judgment, bad luck, being in the wrong place at the wrong time or the odd man out when a savvier buddy chose to plea-bargain. At least two of the five got the max for “felony murder,” the “strict liability” crime of being along for the ride during which a wrongful death occurred, a vestige of twelfth-century English common law that was abolished in England 50 years ago. But all seem to have received indecently excessive sentences. “Without possibility” is not in the same moral universe as rehabilitation.
As usual with Bikel, there is a minimum of editorializing, a maximum of alert sympathy for everybody talked to, and a startled eye, a kind of exacerbated witness, on unruly emotions and lunatic systems. We emerge from When Kids Get Life, as from each of her previous films, not merely indignant, but injured in our humanism. Prisons are a growth industry in a country that has stopped building schools because we would rather not pay our property taxes. And we seem remarkably comfortable with a criminal-justice system that locks up and “disappears” people we fear or hold in contempt—with prisons as closets to hide our unmentionables and as factories for processing spare human parts until there is nothing left but waste.