In September of 1999, Chance Films was invited to observe a writing program at Los Angeles Central Juvenile Hall. What the filmmakers saw in that writing program inspired them to do a similar program using video cameras. They saw the need to give the kids in the Hall a voice that could reach beyond the walls that separated them from free society. What they didn’t know was that teaching basic video production skills and interviewing techniques was going to link them irrevocably to these 12 kids and a cause that most people would turn their backs on: correcting the juvenile justice system and making it one that is run with intelligence, responsibility and mercy.

The filmmakers were naïve to juvenile justice, thinking children were handled fairly and with care, not only for their safety, but also for the safety of the public at large. What they found was that scores of children were getting thrown away in adult prisons instead of staying in the rehabilitative environment of the juvenile system, a structure originally designed to protect them from ending up in the adult system.With the help of cameramen, producers, friends and a passionate nun, the video production class began in earnest in September 1999. At first, the administrators of the Hall were receptive, but cautious. After showing up two times a week for a few months, they realized this crew was really there to help the kids reach into themselves and out to others who were on the cusp of being pulled into the system. That didn’t make working within the system any easier, however. As the histories of these individual kids came to light in the class, the filmmakers realized there was more than a class happening here, there was a story to be told, a story that had the potential to impact thousands of people. They began working to garner all the approvals necessary to put these kids on camera and be able to use their stories to educate others about the system and how to avoid falling into it. The kids involved in the class were all chosen at random, based on very specific criteria:1. They had to be getting tried as adults;
2. They had to be facing long-term sentences;
3. They had to be under 18 so that they would continue to be housed at Juvi for as long as possible to get the most out of the class; and
4. The filmmakers had to get signed consents from the kids, their parents and their attorneys.The first group of kids was taught in the library of the boys’ school, with natural lighting and two cameras. This was the only program to allow a mix of boys and girls in the same class. Many times, the filmmakers would arrive prepared to teach and the kids were not available. Other times, they would work with only one or two of the kids. The participation of the kids was iffy at best, given individual court appearance requirements, availability of staff to be on premises with the kids and lack of communication amongst the Juvenile Hall staff.As time progressed, the kids were being tried, convicted and sent on to County Jail or State Prison. As the kids were sentenced to long terms and even life behind bars, the filmmakers were getting their own education. The naivete began to fall away and the truth of the failing juvenile justice system was making itself known. In May of 1999, high school student Duc was arrested for driving a car from which a gun was shot. Although no one was injured, Duc was not a member of a gang, had no priors and was 16 years old, he received a sentence of 35 years to life.Fourteen-year-old Anait, an Armenian immigrant, had been given a car by her parents. She drove two boys to a high school and dropped them off. The boys got into a fight with another boy and subsequently killed a third boy who attempted to break up the fight. Because she was the driver of the “getaway” car, Anait was charged as an accessory to first-degree murder and originally faced 200 years. She has since taken a deal and is serving 7 years.Then there’s Mayra, a girl raised in the gangs, who at 16 was asked by her gang to kill a girl who had broken one of their rules. She was sleeping with a boy from a rival gang. Mayra shot this girl, did not kill her, but paralyzed her for life. This girl was her best friend. Mayra received Life plus 25 years for her crime and had a baby while in juvenile hall. She has gotten to see her son two times since his birth. He is now 3 years old.At first the filmmakers thought these cases were the exception, but as time went by and all the kids were convicted and sentenced to adult prison facilities with long sentences, they began to realize this was the rule.

Being tough on crime is one thing. But trying children as adults, and dispensing brutal sentences that are shockingly out of proportion to the offense, is quite another. Most Americans would say this can’t happen here, yet for thousands of young people, this is the reality of the present day juvenile justice system, which has turned its back on its initial mission to protect young people and now sends over 200,000 kids through the adult system each year.