'They Call Us Monsters' Offers a More Compassionate Brand of Juvenile Justice
Image: Courtesy BMP Films

When children commit the most heinous of crimes, it challenges our sense of justice and probes the limits of our worldview. Ben Lear’s bold documentary They Call Us Monsters, now streaming on Netflix, suggests that how we respond to these young offenders may also be the ultimate test of our humanity—and a proving ground for the power of grace.

Like many films that deal with such fraught issues as incarceration, They Call Us Monsters begins with a history lesson. During the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, a perceived rise in youth violence and juvenile delinquency led many observers to blame a lax justice system for “losing control of” young offenders. By the early 1990s, ostensibly “tough on crime” policies gained broad political traction, and many states adopted laws that automatically transfer certain juvenile cases to the adult court system. There, children could face much harsher penalties than those allowed in juvenile court.

The film's provocative opening newsreel includes a 1994 press interview in which then-Representative Newt Gingrich curtly expresses the prevailing attitude behind such laws: “There are no violent offenses that are juvenile,” he says. “You rape somebody, you're an adult. You shoot somebody, you're an adult.”

Such inflexible rhetoric resonated loudly in the late 1990s, and the movement to punish rather than rehabilitate juvenile offenders intensified during the early 2000s and persists even today in many states. But now the tides are beginning to turn. There’s a growing consensus that mass incarceration is a failed experiment, and new findings in developmental psychology have prompted some former “tough on crime” advocates—including Gingrich himself—to reverse course on this issue.

This provides the political context for Lear's documentary, which is set against the backdrop of a 2013 bipartisan debate in the California state legislature over Senate Bill 260. This landmark piece of legislation—which became law in 2014, while the film was still in production—would grant juvenile offenders who were tried as adults the chance to be paroled after serving just 15 years of their sentences. It would also establish new parole criteria for these cases, explicitly acknowledging that children are different from adults, even when they commit the most heinous of crimes.

SB260 is a controversial proposal, but Lear personalizes the debate by winsomely introducing us to three inmates at the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar, California. All are being tried as adults for violent crimes and therefore live in “the Compound,” a high-security jail-within-a-jail where they are kept separate from other offenders. Antonio Hernandez (arrested at age 14) and Jarad Nava (arrested at 16) are both charged with multiple counts of attempted murder; Juan Gamez (also arrested at 16) is charged with first-degree murder. If convicted, each faces the possibility of spending the rest of his natural life in prison.

We meet these teenagers in the context of a unique screenwriting class offered at the Compound through InsideOUT Writers (IOW), a Los Angeles nonprofit aiming to reduce juvenile recidivism by “using creative writing as a catalyst for personal transformation.” Filmmaker Gabriel Cowan, a member of IOW's Board of Directors, volunteers to work one-on-one with these kids for ten weeks, patiently coaching them through the creative process of bringing a short screenplay to life. The participants come up with the ideas and collaboratively write the script, and then Cowan shoots their movie with a professional cast and crew.

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