First Director Inside Violent Juvenile Detention Facility Exposes Horrific Ways America Punishes Adolescents

Should kids be tried as adults? The United States criminal justice system thinks so. A looming question in criminal justice reform, the court's defense is the specific circumstances of the crime. 

Juveniles can be tried as adults in criminal court in all states. 

At "The Compound," a Los Angeles facility for the city's most violent juvenile offenders, Jarad, Juan and Antonio are all facing life sentences. They Call Us Monsters is a new documentary that explores the life of these teens and asks if society should have a role in potentially redeeming them. 

The high-security facility is uncharted territory for filmmakers. But despite its reputation, it embodies a certain banality of suburbia. 

"Outside its gates, kids play soccer and kickball on a grassy field. These minors are being tried as juveniles for non-violent crimes. They will return home in a matter of months. Inside 'The Compound,' the kids look the same—almost entirely Hispanic and African-American boys dressed in county grays—only they’re not allowed on the grass. They won’t be going home anytime soon. They are LA County’s high-risk juvenile offenders, tried as adults for violent crimes and facing decades, if not hundreds of years, in adult prison," the film's director, Ben Lear, explains in a statement on the film's website.

What was it like inside the Compound?

"When I first entered the Compound in early 2013, I expected to find stocky, steely-eyed gangsters staring me down, wishing to jump me if given the chance. Either I’d forgotten how young teenagers really look, or I’d watched too much 'Locked Up Raw,' but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Instead I met a classroom full of kids, giddy and eager to tell their stories. They went around the room and shared their career goals," Lear's statement says.

Remarkably, teenagers facing 100 years in prison have the same goals as kids on the outside. The director's statement continues:

"Sixteen-year old Martin said, 'I might want to be an architect. Or an artist. There are so many things I don’t even know about yet. But I’m excited to learn.' Then he paused and added, 'I just hope I get the chance.' He faced 100 years to life for first-degree murder.

For days after, I couldn’t stop thinking about this world I’d stumbled into. The narrow space between a lost childhood and a stolen adulthood where these kids managed to live, laugh and discover their potential. When I learned about an upcoming California Senate bill that would provide them the opportunity for a second chance, I knew I had a film to make."

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