Independent Lens: They Call Us Monsters

About This Episode

They Call Us Monsters goes behind the walls of the Compound, a high-security facility where Los Angeles houses its most violent juvenile criminals. To their advocates, they’re kids. To the system, they’re adults. To their victims, they’re monsters.

The film follows three young offenders who sign up to take a screenwriting class with producer Gabe Cowan as they await their respective trials. Arrested at 16, Jarad faces 200 years-to-life for four attempted murders; Juan, also arrested at 16, faces 90-to-life for first-degree murder; Antonio was arrested at 14 and faces 90-to-life for two attempted murders. As the boys work with Gabe on their screenplay, their complex stories are revealed.

Halfway through the class, Antonio returns to juvenile court and is released with time served but, back in the neighborhood, quickly falls into the same patterns of drug use and gang life that led to his incarceration in the first place. Meanwhile, the realities of Jarad and Juan’s crimes and pending trials set in. One of the victims of Jarad’s shooting is only 17 and permanently confined to a wheelchair. And, even if he is released, Juan faces deportation and separation from his family, including his infant son.

In California, juveniles between the ages of 14 and 17 can be tried as adults and receive sentences longer than their natural life expectancy. As the film reveals, in the last four years, the state has passed bills to decrease juvenile sentencing – a move that re-sparked a national debate over the very nature of these violent juvenile offenders.