Sixteen-year-old Michael Duc Ta was driving with two friends
near Los Angeles five years ago when his friends started shooting
at another car. Although no one was injured, Ta stood trial as an
adult for first-degree attempted murder and received a sentence of
35 years to life.

Mira Levitan
Leslie Neal, director of “Juvies,” a documentary on the juvenile prison system, answers questions after a screening of the film at the Michigan Theatre yesterday. (Shubra Ohri/Daily)

Ta is profiled in “Juvies,” a documentary by
filmmaker Leslie Neale screened yesterday in the Michigan Theater.
The film was an outgrowth of a video production course Neale taught
at Los Angeles Central Juvenile Detention Hall. It chronicles the
experiences of 12 adolescents charged with violent crimes.

The adolescents featured in the documentary were all involved in
violent crimes. As a result of toughened criminal laws, the
teenagers are forced to stand trial as adults in the film. Every
one has been convicted and sentenced to serve in an adult

Neale, who answered questions after the screening, said in the
past few years violent crime has decreased nearly 40 percent.
Juveniles are increasingly required to stand trial as adults, and
media coverage of such events has intensified.

Neale said officials at the California department of corrections
told her that state law officially bars them from offering
rehabilitation programs to prisoners. When asked by an audience
member why the film had little emphasis on rehabilitation, she
responded, “That’s the point – there is no
rehabilitation.” She said she thinks the criminal justice
system has “swung to a punishment model.”

At the beginning of the film, California pedestrians are asked
whether they believe teenage criminals should be sentenced as
adults. The consensus among those interviewed was that adolescents
who commit adult crimes should be forced to stand the consequences
as adults.

Anait, a 14-year-old Armenian immigrant and one of Ta’s
juvenile-hall classmates, was sentenced to seven years for having
inadvertently driven the getaway car for two boys that had murdered
another boy at their high school.

Most of the characters in “Juvies” have lived
childhoods of abuse, poverty and molestation, and they are
disproportionately people of color. Many of them began abusing
drugs at an early age, and several have children of their own. A
number of them ran away from home at an early age.

Ta, who was physically abused by his father from an early age,
refused to allow his father visitation while he was in prison.
Ta’s father, a Vietnamese immigrant, acknowledged that he
often beat his son, but argued that such behavior was cultural.
Once his father put a gun to Ta’s head and threatened to kill
him because he had been suspended from school.

“Juvies” catches up with the kids in Ta’s
juvenile hall class three years after their convictions. The
characters, now young adults, reflect on what prison life has done
to them. Several female inmates remark that prison has had the
opposite effect of rehabilitation. They said they had turned to
drugs to deal with prison life.

Los Angeles district attorney Gil Garcetti said he thought
sentences like the one Ta received are unfair and should have never
been handed down. Garcetti said this although Ta’s 35-year
sentence was handed down during his tenure.

Neale discussed the disparity in sentencing, even among the 12
youth featured in the film. Several were convicted of identical
crimes but were given sentences that differed by decades.

She also noted that recently a Michigan teen who was tried as a
juvenile and convicted of murder will be freed at age 21.

Neale said she thought taxpayers would prefer to have their
money spent rehabilitating and educating citizens, not
incarcerating them.

“Every warden I have talked to has said juveniles are the
most rehabilitatable group among violent criminals.” She then
made an analogy between sending adolescents to adult prison and
“feeding coal to a furnace.”

She emphasized the financial implications of sending young
people to prison as opposed to rehabilitating them and letting them
return to society.

“It costs one million dollars to lock a kid up for
life,” she said.

LSA student John Smith, said the film was illuminating.
“It’s absolutely shocking what they did to those kids
– the sentences are egregious,” he said. He blamed the
phenomenon on overzealous politicians and a public that has been
confused by an alarmist media.

At the film’s end, the pedestrians who said they were in
favor of juvenile criminals standing trial as adults were told what
Ta had done and asked what punishment he should received. The
pedestrians, who seemed to agree on a sentence of several years,
were in disbelief when informed that he had been given 35

Neale, who has won several awards for previous films, will be on
the Montel Williams show later this week. Mark Wahlberg, the
narrator of “Juvies,” spoke about the film this January
on Good Morning America. The screening was hosted by the University
chapter of Amnesty International.

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