‘Juvies’ Exposes Juvenile Justice System

The word “juvies” reminds me of the kids I used to see in movies I watched in the 1950s. They were punks, messing around, acting tough in a world defined by the monotony of their lives and their wildly naive view of the future. Director Leslie Neale’s documentary “Juvies” is a blatantly clear, tragic look at teens who have committed crimes-anything from assault and battery to murder-for which they are tried and sentenced as adults. In her film, Neale sets out to tell the stories of 12 kids, each with his or her own set of circumstances, but all dealt a hopeless hand by the criminal justice system. The film will be presented at 7 p.m., Wednesday, March 3 at Mount St. Mary’s College in cooperation with Human Rights Watch. Neale, a Rustic Canyon resident, delivers a powerful and convincing treatise on the cruel treatment of children trapped in long prison sentences which one person in the film characterizes as a slow death. Juvenile Hall was established 100 years ago precisely because the state understood then that children and adults are different. Now, according to Neale, that system that was originally designed to protect them has failed. Youth tried in adult criminal courts face the same penalties as adults, including life without parole. While in prison, they receive little or no education, mental health treatment or rehabilitative programming. Neale cites studies that show one of the last areas to develop in adolescents is the ability to prevent impulsive behavior; that the frontal cortex of the brain-the portion that controls impulse and emotion and planning-is still maturing. And that one-half of those teens who commit crimes before 18 will never go on to commit another crime. “Juvies” is almost a prologue to Neale’s first film, “Road to Return,” which dealt with the successful return of ex-cons into society, and prompted a U.S. Senate bill that expanded funding for post-prison transitional programs in six more states. This new documentary came about as a result of Neale’s volunteer work at Central Juvenile Hall at Eastlake Center downtown, where she taught a video production class. In teaching the techniques of filmmaking, Neale instructed kids in interview skills and taught them how to use a camera, but she was completely naïve about the juvenile justice system. “I believed in the headlines,” Neale says. “Even the kids I knew had done horrendous things, the most evil, grievous crimes. At first I didn’t believe a lot of what the kids were telling me. But, I was amazed at their level of honesty and realized that there was a film here.” While working with the kids in Juvenile Hall, Neale watched helplessly as one by one they were sentenced and sent off to adult facilities with no hope for rehabilitation or reform. So she decided her film would follow 12 teens in Juvenile Hall on the uncertain road from trial to sentencing. “We stayed until everybody had been adjudicated, which amounted to four years.” It took an average of 18 months to bring the kids to trial, according to Neale, and in the case of one of the kids in the film-Anait-three years. In structuring the film, Neale focused on kids who represented oft-repeated scenarios.   Liz’s story is that of a child who after escaping from her sexually abusive father, was homeless, drug-addicted and eventually arrested at 15 for manslaughter. Duc suffered physical abuse from his traditional Vietnamese/Chinese father and was arrested for driving a car from which a gun was shot. Although no one was injured and Duc, 16, was not a member of a gang and had no priors, he received a sentence of 35 years to life. Anait was a 14-year-old Armenian immigrant who was naive and made stupid choices. Marya was born into a gang situation and shot her best friend who was sleeping with a boy from an opposite gang. Peter’s story is of a gifted pianist who was arrested at 17 for breaking and entering and assault with a deadly weapon and now faces 30 years in state prison. In order to support these stories, the filmmaker interviewed the kids’ parents, and when she could, the victims. “You have to know the families in order to tell a story,” Neale says. “Some critics say that it’s unethical to get close to these kids. I say it’s unethical not to be close to the kids.” In fact, Neale and associate producer Traci Odom have kept up a relationship with all the kids they highlight in the film. Interspersed with the teens’ stories are interviews with experts in juvenile justice and gangs and prosecutors. Former District Attorney Gil Garcetti even admits that sentences like the one Duc received-during Garcetti’s tenure as D.A.-are unfair and should never have happened. Neale is working with other advocates, including Juvenile Hall Catholic lay chaplain Javier Stauring, in trying to reform the juvenile justice system and sees “Juvies” as filling a hole in the advocacy movement. Neale, a former actress who grew up in Dallas and got a degree in film from the University of Texas, lives in Rustic Canyon with her husband John Densmore and 12-year-old son Luca. Densmore, an original and founding member of The Doors, is executive producer for both films and is a major supporter of Amnesty International Neale is actively supporting two bills introduced by State Sen. Sheila Kuehl that would provide sentencing relief and clarify the language about fitness hearings-the process by which a persecutor determines whether the teen will be tried in juvenile court or adult court depending on the seriousness of the crime. Neale concludes that the fact that more kids are being incarcerated despite the dramatic drop in juvenile crime rates represents the confluence of a number of factors. She points to the fear of our youth, exacerbated by the media, the increasing rise in gangs as a result of our failing education system, and zero tolerance. “We’re not understanding the gang issue. There are over 3,000 gangs in L.A. alone,” she says. Louis Yablonsky, sociology professor and gang expert at Cal State Northridge, says that “The law takes the position that even if you’re not in a gang, you must be affiliated. That’s just wrong. In all these neighborhoods, everyone knows everyone else, and only 3 percent are dangerous to their communities.” Despite the dramatic drop in juvenile crime rates, L.A. County continues to sentence hundreds of kids to decades, even life in prison, Neale says. “The question we have to ask is what is the ultimate cost to society of what we’re doing to juvenile offenders?” Palisadian Pam Bruns is organizing the March 3 screening for “Juvies,” part of the Second Annual Human Rights Film Festival at Mount St. Mary’s in the Little Theater on the Chalon Campus, north of Sunset off Bundy. Admission is free. The guest speakers will be Neale and Javier Stauring.