Tonight’s documentary, 15 to Life: Kenneth’s Story is a hard look at the juvenile “justice” system in America and prison rehabilitation. The United States is the only nation that condemns juveniles to life without chance of parole (LWOP). Kenneth’s case is especially disturbing: At 14 he was convinced by an older man, his mom’s drug dealer, to participate in a series of armed robberies.
While the older man planned the robberies and brandished the weapon, he was sentenced to only one life term in prison, while Kenneth was sentenced to four. Four. Life. Terms. At 14.
There are more than 2,500 juveniles serving life sentences in the United States for non-lethal crimes, as well as for murder. In the 1990s, many states reacted to a rise in violent youth crimes by amending their laws to allow more juveniles to be tried as adults. Then, in 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Graham v. Florida that life sentences for juveniles convicted of crimes other than murder were unconstitutional. That made 77 Florida inmates, including Kenneth, eligible for early release.
15 to Life: Kenneth’s Story follows Kenneth’s Graham v. Florida hearing, in which evidence of rehabilitation and remorse is presented as well as testimony from his victims and his mother (herself not the most reliable narrator). While some of his victims are inclined to see him let go; others, along with the prosecutor, defend the original punishment.
The film shows both e human side of the juvenile justice system and the appalling statistics: Every 13 and 14-year-old sentenced to life without parole for a non-homicide crime is a child of color and 60 percent of children sentenced to life without parole are first time offenders.
Director Nadine Pequeneza, our guest tonight, takes a straightforward look at both Kenneth’s story and the imbalance in our prison system. It’s a hard sad story that is an ongoing and ugly part of America, and one that perhaps can be fixed.
15 to Life: Kenneth’s Story premiers tonight on PBS POV. Please check your local PBS station for showtimes. You can also stream the documentary beginning tomorrow.