They Call Us Monsters sheds light on juvenile reform

Aiming to de-stigmatize California’s incarcerated juveniles, a documentary entitled They Call Us Monsters sheds light on the lives of those incarcerated and the state’s legislative debate over juvenile sentencing reform.   

“Juan Gamez, Antonio Hernandez and Jara Nava are the youthful offenders at the heart of…a new documentary that follows their lives in a Los Angeles juvenile detention center,” Youth Today reported. 

“Their stories are framed by their participation in a screenwriting class taught by Gabriel Cowan, one of the documentary’s producers — and by the debate among California lawmakers over a bill that would grant young offenders with lengthy terms a chance at parole after 15 years.”

The film discussed Senate Bill 260, which became law in 2013. Supporters of the measure included the film’s director, Ben Lear. He said, “I feel as a society that we do have the obligation to provide (juveniles) an opportunity to earn a second chance.”

Juan and Jarad were 16 when they were arrested; Antonio was 14. Juan was charged with murder, while Jarad and Antonio were accused of attempted murder.

“Juan’s older brother drew him into gang life as a child in their native El Salvador, before they moved to California. Antonio, a methamphetamine addict, recounts seeing a man shot to death in front of him when he was 8, but insists he’s not traumatized: ‘I guess you do kind of get used to it.’ When he was 12, Jarad found his stepfather trying to stab himself to death — an unsuccessful attempt that nonetheless resulted in the breakup of his family,” Youth Today reported.

Not shying away from the subjects’ culpability, the film shows Jarad’s victim, who describes waking up paralyzed, and shows her trying to navigate in her apartment in a wheelchair.

The film includes surveillance video of the killing committed by Juan, who now says, “I really was a monster.”

Antonio admits he feels no remorse for his actions and began getting into trouble after his release.

Lear was inspired to make the documentary after an invitation to sit in on a scriptwriting class run by InsideOUT Writers, a Los Angeles organization that teaches creative writing to incarcerated kids.

Expecting to meet scary characters like those in the movies, Lear found merely “a classroom full of kids.” Lear now sits on InsideOUT Writers advisory board.

Since the film’s completion, California voters approved Proposition 57, which takes away from prosecutors the decision on whether a teen should stand trial as an adult and puts it in the hands of a Juvenile Court judge.

“California seems to be well on the right path, but there are a lot of states that are much further behind in that conversation,” Lear said. “I want the film to reach those legislative buildings, those communities, to start a conversation around this population and how it should be treated.”

Lear acknowledges that these kids “have to do their time” and “they have to pay for what they did.” But he emphasizes the point that we “don’t know how they will turn out to be when they are 25, 26 or 27.”

–John Lam

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