15 To Life: Kenneth's Story

Monday, August 04, 2014

15 to Life: Kenneth's Story
Directed, Written, and Produced by: Nadine Pequeneza

When I was 15, me and a friend met up at this park in our neighborhood to smoke some weed. It wasn't my first time but I guess this stuff was stronger or something because I started freaking out. I mean, freaking out. I started getting paranoid. It was late and the dark was quickly taking over. Every little twig breaking or leaf rustling made my eyes bulge and my pulse quicken. My mom had already called me twice telling me to come home. We had been walking for what felt like an hour to find our way back home but really, it couldn't have been more than thirty minutes or so. I was near hysteria when we finally got out of the thick brush and realized we were a mile or so from where we were supposed to be. We walked all the way back home in the dark and I probably ended up grounded.

Needless to say, I was a completely different person some ten years ago. I can't imagine what it would be like to have my life dictated by a stupid mistake I made in those formative teenage years.

And that is part of the point of 15 to Life: Kenneth's Story.

When Kenneth was 14 years old, he was an accomplice in four armed robberies under the guidance of an adult ten years older than him. In charge of collecting or destroying the surveillance footage, Kenneth did not carry a gun or have direct interaction with the victims. On one occasion, he was even blackmailed into assisting. Yet, at age 15, Kenneth was sentenced to FOUR consecutive life sentences without parole.

I understand that armed robbery is a serious offense. I understand that the victims (no victims were killed in any of the robberies) will never forget what happened to them. I understand that actions have consequences.

I get all that.

But there also comes a point where we have to understand that the way we've been doing things, isn't working. It isn't helping those who need it most.

There are numerous studies that show the brain of teens and those in their early twenties are still developing. They succumb to peer pressure more easily than adults, don't fully understand what consequences their actions may have, and are more prone to risky behavior.

When "criminals" come into the courtroom it does not behoove them to send to them prison for life. Incarceration for wrong doings are intended to punish the behavior. When the punishment is excessive, you are not helping the person rehabilitate. You are writing them off. You are telling them that they are not worth the effort.

A video about Mass Incarceration in the US 

This becomes an even bigger problem when we talk about juveniles. Some of those who are incarcerated, committed a crime to try to improve their situation in life. Things like stealing money or goods for food are commonplace. Others grew up in a household full of questionable morality and therefore known nothing else.

“Instead of inflicting these horrible punishments, it would be far more to the point to provide everyone with some means of livelihood, so that nobody's under the frightful necessity of becoming first a thief and then a corpse.”

Kenneth's story brings these problems to the forefront. These practices of leaving children to die in prisons has to change. And like anything, all these problems stem from other things: household life, drugs, mental health, gangs, abuse, assault.

Kids, more than others need to be nurtured and shown the way. I'm not saying that they should never have punishments. But the punishments need to fit the crime and their situation in life should be taken into account.

So many people believe that those who are in prison not only deserve to be there but have exhausted their other options and that simply isn't true.

The effects of being in prison take a toll on the person who comes out. They are less stable, less likely to find a job, a home, and are more likely to return for a repeat offense because they are not able to make do without helpful resources.

I didn't know that as many as 2,500 have been given life sentences as juveniles. Kenneth's Story along with his lawyers, his family, and even one of the forgiving victims was truly inspiring. I always put myself into other people's shoes and I honestly don't think I'd be half as optimistic as Kenneth is.

I give it 5 out of 5 popcorn.

You can watch 15 to Life: Kenneth's Story on PBS, tonight, at 8/7 CST. Or you can visit: POV to view the documentary or check your local listings.

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