In June 2000, 14-year-old Kenneth Young was convinced by a 24-year-old neighborhood crack dealer — Kenneth’s mother’s supplier — to join him on a month-long spree of four armed robberies.
When they were caught, Young didn’t deny his part. It was his first serious scrape with the law. But at 15, he was tried under Florida law as an adult and received four consecutive life sentences.
“15 to Life: Kenneth’s Story” will have its national broadcast premiere August 4 at 10 p.m. on PBS’s POV (Point of View) documentary series. It will stream on POV’s website, www.pbs.org/pov/15toLife/, from August 5 to September 4.
Imprisoned for more than a decade, Young believed he would die behind bars. Now a U.S. Supreme Court decision could set him free. The documentary follows Young’s struggle for redemption.
There are more than 2,500 juveniles serving life sentences in the United States for nonlethal crimes, as well as for murder. In the 1990s, many states reacted to a rise in violent youth crimes by amending their laws to allow more juveniles to be tried as adults. Then, in 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Graham v. Florida that life sentences for juveniles convicted of crimes other than murder were unconstitutional. That made 77 Florida inmates, including Young, eligible for early release.
“The United States permitted the death penalty for juveniles until 2005,” said public interest lawyer Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala. “When we finally persuaded the Supreme Court to ban the death penalty for children, I was clear that . . . life imprisonment without parole would still not be a just outcome for many of these kids.”
The cast of “15 to Life” includes the legal advocates who have taken up Young’s cause. Paolo Annino, head of Florida State University’s Children in Prison Project and a co-director of the Public Interest Law Center in Tallahassee, has long argued that life sentences for juveniles violate the Constitution’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment.” His research was cited in Graham v. Florida, which opened the door for resentencing Young and thousands of others.