These teens could die in jail for crimes committed as children

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Like many teens hoping to emanate strength and masculinity, 16-year-old Jarad isn't willing to reveal a single thing that scares him—except snakes.

"It seems like you're avoiding the question," screenwriting teacher Gabe Cowan says to Jarad in the documentary They Call Us Monsters, which premiered this week at the Los Angeles Film Festival.

"Fear of death? Fear of isolation?" Cowan offers as possibilities. "Fear of staying here?"

Jarad, who is serving more than 160 years in prison for multiple attempted murders, pauses on those ideas. His eyes glaze over for a moment before he shakes off the thought of never getting out of prison. "No, I'm scared of snakes," he says with a laugh.

They Call Us Monsters takes viewers inside the high-security compound at Sylmar Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles, where violent teen offenders being tried as adults are segregated from other juveniles. The film focuses on three boys—Jarad, Juan, and Antonio—who signed up to participate in a screenwriting class with L.A.-based nonprofit Inside Out Writers.

With each turn of the story they write, the teens reveal more about their personal histories and the elements that contributed to their incarceration. Each boy experienced a major trauma at 12 years old. Jarad witnessed his stepfather's suicide attempt, Juan was jumped into a gang, and Antonio became addicted to drugs.

Now, each faces a sentence longer than his natural-born life for crimes committed at age 14 or 16.

"The situation that they're in is so overwhelming," Ben Lear, the film's director, told TakePart. "To be looking at the possibility of never getting to live your life, at an age when you don't know what it means to live your life in the first place."

Despite looming sentences, the film shows that these teens are still children. They tease one another, skip homework, and make dirty jokes.

"You see kids being kids," Cowan, who also produced the film, told TakePart. "It doesn't take away the other important part of the discussion, which is that these people made bad choices, and they did horrible things that permanently affect the lives or took the lives of other people."

Jarad was convicted of shooting a teen girl who is paralyzed and will spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair. Antonio faces 90 years for two counts of attempted murder. Juan is accused of shooting a young man at point-blank range three times and killing him.

"I really was a monster," Juan says in the film. "I really was."

But it's that idea—that Juan "was" a monster and has the ability to change—that the film considers. Should violent juveniles be punished like fully culpable adults or like children who made mistakes and can change?

"The implication is when you're a juvenile and you're transferred to adult court, you're a lost cause," Lear explained, adding that juvenile programs focus on rehabilitation, while adult facilities are punitive.

Roughly 250,000 kids are tried, sentenced, or incarcerated as adults annually, according to the National Juvenile Justice Center. Treating juvenile offenders the same way as adult offenders has come under increased scrutiny in recent years.

The Supreme Court declared the death penalty for juveniles unconstitutional in 2005, cut life without parole for non-homicide crimes by those under 18 in 2010, and struck down mandatory life without parole sentences for children who commit murder in 2012.

Neuroscience research has found that the prefrontal cortex area of the brain—which informs impulse control and risk and reward reasoning—is not fully developed until age 25. That makes juvenile offenders capable of both aging out of bad behavior and more receptive to therapy.

Along with tracking the boys' foray into filmmaking, the documentary follows California Senate Bill 260, which allows prisoners who committed crimes before turning 18 to become eligible for parole after they've served at least 15 years in prison. This bill, which went into effect in January 2014, requires the board to consider the prisoner's age at the time the crime was committed.

"It's so impactful to Jarad. Without that bill, he would have to serve 160 years before he would have an opportunity for parole—which is a joke. I can't even say that seriously," Lear said.

Jarad racked up time on his sentence because, along with four attempted murder charges, he had several enhancement charges, including shooting at an occupied motor vehicle, possession of a short-barreled rifle or shotgun, and gang affiliation charges. Jarad's sentence mandates that each conviction be served consecutively rather than concurrently.

"There are still a lot of ways for juveniles to receive extreme sentences," Lear said. "I would love for this film to be a conversation starter around that."

Because of the length of some of Jarad's individual charges, he will serve 25 years before he's eligible for parole. Juan will serve 15 years before he's eligible for parole. Antonio was released from Sylmar but was arrested again on robbery charges.

The filmmakers are optimistic about the future for Juan and Jarad and believe they will be good candidates for parole. Since the film ended, both have been transferred to Ironwood State Prison, an adult facility with a youthful offenders program. They are enrolled in college, attend church, and continue to participate in Inside Out Writers.

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