15 to Life: Kenneth’s Story
The US is the only country in the world to sentence children to life imprisonment without parole. Until it was outlawed by the Supreme Court in 2005, the US permitted the execution of juveniles. After an extended campaign by human rights advocates, in 2010 the Supreme Court ruled it illegal for courts to sentence children to life imprisonment for crimes other than murder. This ruling made many lifers eligible for sentence review if they were underage at the time of their offense.
This documentary follows the heartbreaking sentence rehearing of a 26 year who who was fifteen when he participated in four armed robberies. Like the vast majority of offenders serving life sentences, Kenneth is African American. And like 70% of juveniles given life sentences, he accompanied an older adult in committing the crime.
Kenneth maintains the older man (his mother’s drug dealer) forced him to participate in the armed robberies by threatening his mother’s life. She owed him money over a cocaine deal. Ironically the adult received a lesser sentence than fifteen year-old Kenneth.
The filmmakers also interview sentencing reform advocates who make a compelling case that their emotional immaturity makes juveniles extremely susceptible to adult manipulation.
At the sentencing rehearing, it is the judge’s sole discretion whether to reduce a juvenile’s life sentence. Although the judge in this case acknowledges Kenneth has been rehabilitated (in eleven years of incarceration he has received only one disciplinary write-up in eleven years – for not making his bed), he inexplicably sentences him to another ten years in prison.
Sadly Florida courts continue to be dominated by an extreme racial bias that labels African American youth offenders as “superpredators” incapable of being rehabilitated.
This verdict is presently being appealed to the Supreme Court.