Michigan Juvenile Lifers Subject Of New Documentary

Mar 5, 2015

Still image from Natural Life. Reenactments in prison cell shot at an abandoned prison in Jackson, Michigan.
Credit (Courtesy Photo)

Two years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life without parole for minors falls under “cruel and unusual punishment.” But the states are still deciding what to do with current inmates sentenced to life as children, and to date Michigan is among the states with the most juvenile lifers in the country.

On Friday night, the ACLU’s Kalamazoo Civil Liberties Film Series will show a documentary on the subject, called Natural Life by Chicago filmmaker Tirtza Even.

Here's the transcript of the shorter interview:

REBECCA THIELE: I noticed that a lot of these teens were either not directly responsible for the crimes the committed or their culpability is somewhat in question. Is that common for these juvenile lifers?

TIRTZA EVEN: Yeah that is common apparently and I found that afterwards. Part of the diversity I was seeking was a degree of responsibility. And I found out that many of the ones I was talking with were just there with an adult that they didn't stop from committing a crime. And not stopping the adult then constitutes aiding and abetting - you need to actually actively stand up to the person who's committing the crime or leave the room - which I think is ironic in the context of the age gap. Sometimes the gender gap - you know, a girl with a boyfriend that would commit a crime and she wouldn't stop him or he would use her in some way or another to facilitate the crime. Bring the person in if it was for an act of prostitution and then kill the man. And so yes, what I found - and especially I think with the women - is that often times wasn't them that committed the crime directly.

RT: In a previous interview you said that the media was actually had a lot to do with intensifying these sentences for youth...

TE: So in the late '80s there was a big case - that I think many of us remember - in Central Park in New York where several youths were accused of a murder of a woman and a rape. It was all actually proven to be wrong very recently, but at the time it set in motion a media frenzy around the treatment of youth in general. And they were described in terms like "predator" and "super predator." Academics were talking about it. The police and the legal entities were responding to that kind of rise in outrageous behavior by youths. And a lot of it was not based in fact, it was really just swirling out of control by media response to that event and a few other events around it. A lot of those statements were revised over the years, but at the time they did impact the way the legal system responded. 

RT: A lot of these kids [juvenile lifers] are talking about what they're missing. If they could only have known what to do in that situation, that they could have been living a normal life. I just found that very compelling.

TE: I think part of what I'm trying to advocate is seeing...understanding the change is what they undergo and oftentimes change that is radical. From a kid that is lost and maybe misdirected to an adult that is remorseful, that is educated, thoughtful, that would never commit a crime like that again. And so I was looking for ways to manifest that kind of growth.