Spending Time With Kids Sentenced As Adults

By Karen Grau
July 7, 2011 5:35 PM

In the next few weeks officials in Indiana will decide whether or not an 11-year old boy will stand trial as an adult for shooting and killing his 6-year old brother.  Yes, I said 11 … and yes, I said “adult.”
For the past eight months I’ve been filming young kids who are already serving hard time in adult prisons; and over the past 13 years I’ve gotten to know dozens more who live their lives immersed in chaos, spring-boarding from juvenile detention centers to juvenile courtrooms that sadly become second homes.

But as I watch and listen to the current debate regarding the future of our latest 11-year-old headline, there are only three words that come to my mind:  

I.  Am.  Lucky.

I am lucky because I get to see a side of society that no one wants to see.  It’s easy to pretend it doesn’t exist.  And really, it doesn’t.  Not in the “real” world.  When kids like ‘my’ kids are behind bars, they’re all but removed from the face of the earth. They’re caged behind razor wire in facilities sometimes so far from home that family and friends can rarely make the cross-state trip to visit.  All the while they battle the daily struggle of wondering if “everyone will eventually forget about me”.  The short answer is yes.  And many already have.

Don’t get me wrong--I get that there’s the victim’s side to this madness.  I fully understand a family member or friend or perfect stranger going through his or her own private hell due to a horrific crime.  I don’t discount that.  I understand the need for law and order.  

But here’s what I don’t get:  

How does a 20 or 30 year adult prison sentence for an 11- or 12-year old child do ANYONE any good?

What will the adult prison system do—for punishment or rehabilitation—that the juvenile system wouldn’t or couldn’t?  Three decades is a long time behind bars for anyone, never mind a child for whom that represents three times the amount of time they’ve been alive.

What seems missing from the tough-on-crime stance that leads to giving kids extended sentences in the adult system is this: eventually they are going to get out.  When that young boy walks out of those adult prison gates having been raised in razor wire hell, who will he be then?  I can guarantee you this: he won’t be the same person he COULD have been had his time been spent in the juvenile system instead.

Two weeks ago I sat across from a 12-year old as he struggled to tell me what it’s like to live life in a 10’ x 8’ cell every day.  Try to imagine being 12 again…then try to imagine sitting in a cell for hours on end, no roommate, no TV, no radio, nothing but the sound of other kids yelling through steel doors across the hall.  I’m 49, and even I would go stark raving mad.

Punishment for a crime is one thing: the 12 year old I refer to above was waived to adult court and is serving 30 years for conspiracy to commit murder.  Yes, there should be a price to pay for that.  But where does punishment end and sanity begin?  This is a child with NO previous history in the court or correction system – not a single incident, no issues at school, not a single issue at home.  His mom, a college graduate, could only say the worst thing she remembers is a period of time when he didn’t finish his homework.  A local attorney has now taken on his case pro bono, in hopes of an appeal.

I’ve seen a lot in the past 13 years covering kids in the juvenile justice system.  I’ve seen progressive professionals find creative ways to rehabilitate kids while budgets get annihilated. I’ve seen people who have no business being in this business wield power over kids for their own gain.  But most of all, I’ve seen resilience in kids who should have given up long ago but who refuse to give in.  Law and order might be part of the fabric of our society, but hope and redemption still lives in the kids I meet behind bars.  

And when you’re 12 years old and staring down 30 years, that’s more impressive than you can imagine.

Posted on July 7, 2011 .