'They Call Us Monsters' Offers a More Compassionate Brand of Juvenile Justice

Ben Lear's directorial debut humanizes the debate about adult prison sentences for juvenile offenders.
'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.

Viewers watch as Cowan bonds with his unlikely students, gently coaxing them to share their personal stories. We come to know Jarad as the entertaining (if occasionally obnoxious) comedian whose humor and nonchalant attitude mask a deep fear of emotional vulnerability. At the other end of the spectrum, Juan emerges as the emotionally sensitive and surprisingly self-aware individual whose greatest fear is the thought of loving someone without being loved in return. And then there’s Antonio, the underdog dreamer who longs to do noble things with his life, but lacks the patience and discipline to pursue them.

Lear acquaints us with their backstories through a series of private interviews, both with the inmates themselves and with outside parties involved in their cases. To be fair—and this is one of the film's most compelling qualities—not all of what we learn paints our protagonists in a particularly sympathetic light. But their stories share some common threads that set their flaws in context, eliciting viewers' compassion despite their serious shortcomings.

The film they write together, Los, is a gritty loss-of-innocence story about a misunderstood teen poet who risks the affection of his girl-next-door “crush” trying to fit in with his disowned older brother's delinquent friends. Lear skillfully weaves snippets of the final production into the documentary such that viewers intuitively recognize how every facet of this pithy film derives from something in Juan's, Jarad's, and Antonio's real-life experiences. It's a not-so-subtle hint that these youngsters' turbulent lives are full of the kinds of things viewers might otherwise imagine only happen in the movies.

What distinguishes Lear's storytelling approach from other works of this genre, however, is the way he frequently plays the devil's advocate to challenge our developing sympathy for his subjects. In what is by far the film's most gut-wrenching scene, for instance, we meet Vesenia Castro, one of Jarad's victims, now paralyzed from the waist down because of her injuries. Lear forces us to listen as she tearfully describes the stigma of being treated “differently” by her peers. He makes us watch as she awkwardly navigates daily chores from the confines of her wheelchair.

The scene is difficult to view, not just because of Vesenia's obvious suffering, but because at this point in the film we've come to know Jarad as more than the “monster” who did this to her. We're angry at him and recognize that he deserves to be severely punished, but inwardly we want to believe there's still some glimmer of hope for his future. And yet, recognizing that Vesenia's disability is both real and permanent, we also can't help but wonder: If her pain never ends, then why should his?

The emotional tug-of-war is brutal, just as Lear intends. With our sympathies caught between these two young lives, both forever changed by one senseless act of violence, we discover that justice is rarely as black-and-white as we might prefer it to be. We long for it to be served, but we're not really certain what it ought to look like in a case like this.

Arguably, that's the film's most important contribution. With its category-defying pastiche of stakeholder perspectives, it feels less like a heavy-handed work of advocacy than a quiet meditation on a difficult truth many of us would prefer to ignore: Evil knows no age restrictions. Those of us who haven’t grown up around the kind of violence these children describe can easily forget that evil isn’t something we “grow into”; it’s the basic condition into which we’re born.

The Scriptures are undeniably clear on this point. In the first book of the Bible, God observes that “every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood” (Gen. 8:21, NIV). When David, a “man after God’s own heart” (Acts 13:22), is found guilty of murder, he honestly confesses, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Ps. 51:5). In the New Testament, Paul affirms that we are “by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3, ESV) born into a fallen world “groaning” to be set free from the bondage to which human sin has subjected it (Rom. 8:19–22).

Such facts don’t comport with the popular notion that children enter this world “innocent” and later become corrupted by negative influences. In contrast, the Bible teaches that from a very early age, we must be taught to restrain our natural selfishness and to resist our inborn tendency to hurt one another for personal gain. That’s not to say, of course, that all children who come from rough neighborhoods, experience disillusionment with formative role models in their lives, or suffer from a deficit of positive attention at home are bound to become homicidal deviants. It’s only to say that there’s nothing fundamentally more evil about Juan, Jarad, or Antonio than any of the teenagers in our church youth groups. More importantly, there’s nothing fundamentally less evil about any of us.

The question at the heart of Lear's film, then, isn't whether these children deserve to spend the rest of their lives behind bars. Undoubtedly, they do. Rather, it’s whether we're willing to take a second look at these “monsters” and see something of ourselves in their plight.

The simple fact is that there's no such thing as an “adult” crime, just as there's no such thing as a “respectable” sin. Apart from God's unmerited grace in Jesus Christ, none of us would have any hope if God had elected to deal with us the way our legal system deals with juvenile rapists and murders.

As people who know better than any the transformative power of grace, we have every cause to support an approach to justice that holds offenders accountable while still leaving room for the possibility of redemption and restoration. There are plenty who would say that the final scene of these teenagers' lives has already been written, and they've walked out on the rest of the show. They Call Us Monsters dares to suggest that there are plenty more unexpected plot twists yet to be revealed, if we're willing to stick around for the whole production.

Johnathan Kana is a freelance writer, composer, and armchair theologian who met his Savior in a profound new way when he found himself rediscovering the Bible in the seminary of hard knocks. He is a regular contributor at Think Christian and journals on themes of restorative justice at his blog Redeem Your Time. He lives with his family in central Texas.

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