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Of Kids, Crime and Punishment
August 4, 2014  | By Eric Gould  | 2 comments

There’s no question that Kenneth Young, 14 years old at the time of his arrest, was there, robbing two hotel clerks in Tampa, Florida in 2000. The POV documentary 15 to Life: Kenneth’s Story isn’t a story of guilt. We soon find that Young was along on a month-long spree of four robberies and an accomplice of a man almost 10 years older, a neighborhood crack dealer – his mother’s supplier. He was unarmed during at least one of the robberies.

We learn that Young grew up in one of Tampa’s ghettoes helping watch his teenaged sister's newborn while his mother would frequently go off on week-long drug benders. Shortly, we find that he, as a juvenile, got four consecutive life sentences for his crimes while the older accomplice, the presumed mastermind, got one.

The US Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that life sentences without parole given to juveniles were unconstitutional. Young, along with 77 other Florida inmates, became eligible for release or resentencing. The core issue of the documentary directed by Nadine Pequenza (premiering Monday night on PBS, 10 p.m., ET, check local listings) is not whether Young should have been punished. Its question examines whether he should be for the rest of his life, for crimes committed when he was, essentially, an unformed kid who couldn't know the full impact of his choices.

As the film follows Young, now 26, going up for resentencing, he had already spent 11 years in prison, a lot of it in solitary. He seems reformed and so does his mother, now sober. Their main offenses seem to start with being poor and uneducated.

While giving their story, much of it unfortunate, 15 to Life... doesn’t skirt the impact of Young’s crimes. One clerk from the Tampa robbery, Jennifer Norman, is clearly still traumatized more than a decade later but has forgiven him, in part, because he talked his accomplice out of raping her.

The other clerk, Sandra Christopher, is unconvinced about prison rehabilitation. At the hearing, she’s asked by a prosecutor, “What are you thinking when you have this gun pointed at your head?” She answers, “God and I are good. I went through a checklist (snaps her fingers) that fast. God and I are good. When they say your life flashes in front of your eyes – it does. As much as I know that he wants to be released, I’m not ready to have him walking around where I live.” She finishes flatly, “And I’m not moving.”

Young’s fate is deftly unraveled by Pequenza and 15 to Life... does the best that television can do when excavating the complex issues of crime, punishment and what brand of justice best serves society.

That’s to say it feels squarely journalistic and places the questions directly in the lap of the viewer.

The POV title sequence (and it’s one of the greats) starts each week with a clip of filmmaker Marshall Curry, director of a 2011 POV episode, saying, “The most interesting films are ones that take very strong points of view and bang them up against each other.”

That idea may be no truer than in 15 to Life.
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In my excess of 60 years I've seen America go from the war on poverty to the war on the poor. We are the most powerful country on earth but seem the most fearful, whether from terrorists, urban poor teenagers, or whatever talk radio tells us. We've traded away all our precious civil liberties and become the most punitive society on earth. But its cool, god and i are good
Aug 10, 2014   |  Reply
angie Patterson
Only. a word to the system of law in Fla. IT SUCKS!! Especially if its against a black. And Jennifer Norman you are no more afraid than anyone else.GOD WILL PUNISH YOU BOTH FOR CONDEMNING A CHILD WHO HAD NO GUIDANCE. FLA. OFFICERS ARE MOSTLY Klans. do the research..
Aug 7, 2014   |  Reply
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