Bang! The sound of the gavel is one that most of us hope we never hear in person. For three teenagers from Los Angeles, it is already too late. In a documentary titled “They Call Us Monsters” by Ben Lear, 14-year-old Antonio, 16-year-old Juan and 17-year-old Jarad are psychoanalyzed in an attempt to convince the viewer that they are really just good kids that do not deserve the punishment they must serve because they were tried as adults in the crimes they committed.
Scattered around the country, juvenile detention centers are designed to hold felons under the age of 18 and typically hold the convicted for less time than their adult counterparts. The idea comes from the fact that the brain is often slower to develop than the body so we should not punish teenagers excessively for making mistakes. We all make them, right?
However, most states have caveats to this rule. In places like California, juveniles charged with violent crimes between the ages of 14 and 17 can be tried and sentenced as adults.
What crimes did these three boys featured in the documentary commit that deserve sympathy? Jarad was the gunman in a drive-by which left a young girl paralyzed for life and injured several others. Juan shot a man three times at point-blank range. He is eligible for parole 10 to 20 years but faces deportation after. Antonio faces two counts of attempted murder (he was later released between the making of the documentary and the airing).
With such violent crimes, I do not think it is inherently wrong to try them as adults, particularly when two of them are so close to meeting age 18, the legal definition of “adulthood.” But as often is the case, teenagers often do not commit crimes like this by themselves, and the documentary explores this.
Jarad watched his step-father commit suicide at 12 and soon found himself in a gang. Juan, also in a gang, at 16 is described as already being a father to a “young son.” Antonio became addicted to drugs, namely smoking crystal meth, at 12. The documentary further interviews the boys’ family members and a lack of parenting becomes quite clear.
But the question remains: who is at fault for the crimes committed? Lear clearly wants us to come to the conclusion that it is not the shooters who should be punished. His documentary is filmed in such a way as to show the childish and immature nature of the three boys; yet it comes across as what can only be described as “unconvincing” at best, with a shocking lack of empathy for the victims.
While outside factors are at play with all three of these cases, who is the one who ultimately pulled the trigger? Lack of parenting might have led them to the gangs, and the gang might have told them who and how to shoot, but it was ultimately the boys who decided to shoot.
If a 12-year-old commits a mass murder, he should be held accountable for it as an adult. But how do you determine which minors should be tried as adults? Do you make a broad statement about all violent crimes as California has? If a law is too vague and left to the discretion of the judges, then the “oh, that judge is racist” and the “oh, that judge is easier than all the others” cries will ring out.
How do you propose a black-and-white solution to a colorful problem?
Simultaneously though, we must address our prison system. Where the penitentiaries fail the most with criminals this young is with what happens when they are sent away. By keeping convicts locked up away from society, often without education, the prison system does nothing to turn its criminals into members of society. If there is no escaping the sentence, systems should at least be in place to prevent the rate of repeat offenders once they serve time for the crimes they committed.
David Csordas is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.