The United States is the only country in the world that routinely condemns children to die in prison. This is the story of one of those children, now a young man, seeking a second chance in Florida. At age 15, Kenneth Young received four consecutive life sentences for a series of armed robberies. Imprisoned for more than a decade, he believed he would die behind bars. Now a U.S. Supreme Court decision could set him free. 15 to Life: Kenneth’s Story follows Young’s struggle for redemption, revealing a justice system with thousands of young people serving sentences intended for society’s most dangerous criminals.
15 to Life: Kenneth’s Story has its national broadcast premiere on Monday, Aug. 4, 2014 at 10 p.m. on PBS’s POV (Point of View) documentary series which airs on WJCT Channel 7. It will stream on POV’s website, www.pbs.org/pov/15toLife/, from Aug 5- Sept. 4.
In June 2000, 14-year-old Kenneth Young was convinced by a 24-year-old neighborhood crack dealer—Kenneth’s mother’s supplier—to join him on a month-long spree of four armed robberies. When they were caught, Kenneth didn’t deny his part. It was his first serious scrape with the law. But at 15, he was tried under Florida law as an adult. Astoundingly, he received four consecutive life sentences—guaranteeing that he would die in prison.
Kenneth’s sentence was not a rarity. 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. But how would the Florida courts, historically in favor of juvenile life sentences, apply the Supreme Court decision to a decade-old case?
Public-interest lawyer Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala., provides perspective. “The United States permitted the death penalty for juveniles until 2005,” he says. “When we finally persuaded the Supreme Court to ban the death penalty for children, I was clear that that . . . life imprisonment without parole would still not be a just outcome for many of these kids.”
The cast of 15 to Life includes the legal advocates who have taken up Kenneth’s cause. Paolo Annino, head of Florida State University’s Children in Prison Project and a co-director of the Public Interest Law Center in Tallahassee, has long argued that life sentences for juveniles violate the Constitution’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment.” His research was cited in Graham v. Florida, which opened the door for resentencing Kenneth and thousands of others.
Kenneth’s guilt-ridden mother, Stephanie, struggles to convince the court that her son deserves the help she never gave him. “I know the judge has a heart,” she says. “I’ve prayed and I asked for forgiveness on behalf of me and my son.”
Nadine Pequeneza says, “As I began to research, reading articles, reports and studies from individuals and groups on both sides of this argument, I discovered some shocking statistics: 60 percent of children sentenced to life without parole are first time offenders and every 13- and 14-year-old sentenced to life without parole for a non-homicide crime is a child of color.”
“When children commit crimes, should rehabilitation take precedence over punishment? Can children be ruled to be adults, based on a single action? Can children who commit violent acts be rehabilitated? By focusing on Kenneth’s story, I set out to find the answers.”