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Juvies - Filmmaker Puts Focus On Plight of Youth Offenders - Daily Journal

By Susan McRae
Daily Journal Staff Writer

LOS ANGELES - In the opening of the documentary "Juvies," a dozen boys and girls walk single-file across a sandy yard at Central Juvenile Hall in East Los Angeles. Clad in baggy orange prisonwear, the wards, as juvenile inmates, ages 14 to 17, are called, clasp their hands behind their backs, one cupped inside the other, like invisible handcuffs. They look wistful, lost and achingly young.

By the time the film is completed five years later, every one of them will be serving hard time in adult prison for their involvement in gang-related crimes. Many of them will be there for most of their lives.

Leslie Neale, an award-winning filmmaker, mother and child advocate, began making "Juvies" while teaching a video production class to wards at Central Juvenile Hall from 1999 to 2001. Her 66-minute documentary, made with the help of the teens themselves, will make its Los Angeles debut March 16 at the Japanese American National Museum. A panel discussion will follow with director Neale and narrator Mark Wahlberg, a film actor who served time as a juvenile delinquent in an adult prison in Massachusetts for assault.

Before making the film, Neale, who lives and works on Los Angeles' tony Westside, admitted that she was "just as afraid as the next person" of the teenage gangsters she read about in the local newspaper. But what she witnessed in the system has turned her into a crusader against locking up teens in adult prisons. In 2002, she helped organize the first United Nations meeting ever on juvenile justice.

"Once you cross those barriers of fear and realize you are more like an offender [than not], you see the humanity," Neale said. "For the first time, all of your myths and perceptions are brought into question," she said.

Neale began teaching young offenders after a chance meeting in the late '90s with Sister Janet Harris, chaplain of Central Juvenile Hall, at a benefit dinner. "I helped facilitate connecting her to the program," Harris said. "After that, she just took off. She had such respect for the young people and listened deeply to what they were saying." "What she became aware of was that our justice system was somewhat broken, that some gang members are criminals, but not all gang members are criminals," Harris said. "But with such a bombardment of news, we tend to broad-brush them. "I think what Leslie was attempting to do was to say, 'Wait a minute,'" Harris said.

Bounding up the stairs of her home, which doubles as a production office, Neale, 44, barefoot and wearing a T-shirt and jeans, exhibits the energy of the teens she has mentored. She just got off the phone with Rock the Vote, she explained. The nonprofit organization that encourages young people to register to vote in the presidential primary has picked "Juvies" as one of the films it will be showing at colleges around the country. "A recent polling shows that youth rate important issues as education, health and juvenile justice," Neale said, sitting down at a long wooden table strewn with photos of kids who appear in her film.

Among the photos are several of Duc Ta. The El Monte teenager was 16 when police arrested him in connection with a shooting by one of two passengers in a car that Duc was driving. The passengers, admitted members of the Asian Boyz gang, were chasing a car containing rival gang members when the shot was fired. No one was hit or hurt. Duc did not own the gun and was not the shooter, facts that were undisputed by both the defense and prosecution. Duc also contended that he did not belong to that gang or any other, according to court transcripts. Nonetheless, Duc, who had no prior criminal record, was convicted by a jury of premeditated attempted murder, along with the other two passengers, and sentenced to 35-years-to-life in adult prison.

Duc's case reflects the harsh punishments allowable under Proposition 21. The law, passed by 62 percent of the voters in 2000, expanded the list of serious or violent crimes that qualify juveniles for adult prison to include "strikes" under the three-strikes law. It also allows prosecutors to file cases directly in adult court, instead of having a juvenile judge decide to send them there. Perhaps most important, the law adds up to 25-years-to-life in prison for gang-motivated crimes, whether or not the person involved is a gang member. It adds more time if a gun is used.

In Duc's case, for example, he received 15 years for attempted murder and 20 years for the gun charge. Without the gang allegation, he would have received seven years for attempted murder. A gun-use allegation, before the gang-enhancement law, would have added one year. "It is the citizens who passed these laws ... which require much more stringent punishment for gang conduct," said Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney May Chung, who prosecuted the case. "The bottom line is citizens were tired of gang activity." During her closing statement, Chung argued that Duc tried to fire the gun with his left hand while steering the car with his right hand, but he couldn't pull it off. She suggested that he might have been stymied by the gun's dual safety devices.

According to a court transcript, Duc admitted to police that he handled the gun when the back-seat passenger passed it to him, but Duc denied firing it. Scientific tests show no gun residue on Duc's hands, but the tests do show residue on the hand of the driver-side passenger. "We're not talking about the appropriateness of the penalty here but whether passive nonactivity gets a person into this kind of trouble," Chung said. "If [Duc] had just sat there and done nothing, it would never have gone that far."

To this day, Neale said, she's not sure what happened. What she does know is that, when she met Duc, he was a sensitive teenager who wrote poetry and was eager to learn. During his time at juvenile hall, she said, he showed great promise for rehabilitation. Neale's impression is backed by dozens of Duc's supporters, including other volunteers and the Central Juvenile Hall high-school principal.

Neale persuaded prominent Los Angeles criminal defense lawyer Mark Geragos to come into the case at the sentencing stage, but he was unable to negotiate a lesser term. The trial judge, Charles Horan, said that the law for gang-motivated crimes gave him no options.

The 2nd District Court of Appeal affirmed on numerous points. People v. Phan, B146491 (Cal. App. 2nd Dist. 2003). Geragos will be filing a habeas petition in the U.S. District Court's Central District in Los Angeles.

Duc's case, which Neale has made a cause celebre among juvenile-justice reformers, typifies the stories documented in her film of teens convicted and sentenced under Proposition 21. Neale doesn't believe that crimes by teens should go unpunished. She also believes that a very few juvenile offenders may be psychopaths or sociopaths and should be locked away from society for a long time. But what she tries to convey in the film is that the laws, in their attempt to stem gang violence, have gone overboard in the other direction. She cites experts and studies that show teens are not simply small adults. There is a distinct difference in their brain function. They act impulsively and do not have the maturity to anticipate the consequences of their actions. The studies also show that harsh punishment for most teen offenders is not as effective as rehabilitation and that juveniles are more amenable to making positive changes in their behavior than adults. Even Gil Garcetti, who was Los Angeles district attorney when Proposition 21 passed, admitted in the film that he did not believe the law was intended for people like Duc Ta.

Charles Hobson, a lawyer for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a nonprofit public-interest firm that supported the measure, has not seen the film. But, Hobson said, his firm supported Proposition 21 because it believes prosecutors, not judges, should be the ones deciding whether to try a case in adult court. "In the cases of marginal [gang] involvement, we felt it was better to trust that decision [of where to try a case] to prosecutors, who could better reflect the community's desire to protect itself," he said. "Courts are not supposed to make decisions like that."

Hobson also pointed out that only "a very few" of the worst juvenile offenders are sentenced in adult court. Most young offenders, he said, are sent home on probation, to juvenile camps or to the California Youth Authority. "By weeding out the most egregious offenders, you can better concentrate resources on trying to rehabilitate the others," Hobson said. "I don't live in a neighborhood where people do drive-bys, and I think the person who made the documentary doesn't, either," he added.

In response, Neale cited an "iron curtain" between the rich and poor neighborhood, which is why many people don't realize how laws like this are misused. "They are meant to target the most heinous offender," she said. "But what happens when these laws are directed at those who have the most chance of rehabilitation, as in the case of Duc Ta?"

She said that not until she began visiting prisons herself did she realize the extent of the problem and the realities of what was happening. "Statistically, kids from those upper-crust neighborhoods who are charged with the same kinds of crimes aren't getting the same kinds of sentences as those from 'poor' neighborhoods," Neale said. "And if there are more drive-bys in those neighborhoods, wouldn't it be more cost-effective to put [those offenders] in intervention and rehabilitation programs rather than incarcerate more people from those neighborhoods?''' she asked.

In her film, Neale draws a correlation between the abused and the abuser. Using Duc Ta as an example, she shows how his emotional and physical abuse by a strict disciplinarian father caused him to attempt suicide once and run away from home. In a filmed interview, Duc's father tearfully acknowledges that he beat his son with an electrical cord and once held a gun to his son's head because he brought home a poor grade in one of his classes.

Jo Kaplan, a longtime advocate for juveniles who saw an early cut of Neale's film, said many of the kids who end up in the delinquency system never had a chance. "Many times, when I talk to kids, I find that they came out of family situations so horrendous that often it is a miracle that they survived at all," Kaplan said. "What happens is their anger is never resolved because they don't get counseling or help early on and it gets perpetuated," she said. "So many of them need to be helped to heal while there is still a chance," Kaplan continued. "Instead, we are criminalizing them and throwing away lives that, if we handled it differently, many kids could be rehabilitated and live productive lives."

Kaplan praised Neale for her dedication and perseverance in trying to make a difference in young people's lives. Most people, Kaplan said, give up after a while, and the outrage dissipates. People become inured to juvenile crime and kids in prisons, she said. "Leslie continues to be outraged," Kaplan said. "She's never becomes numb to it."

At the end of the film, Neale shows the kids, who looked so young in the beginning, now doing hard time in state prison. The girls have turned to sex and drugs as a way of coping with their bleak future. The boys have become muscle-bound men, with the hardened look of career inmates. "I have a theory, and it's just my theory," Neale said. "Our culture has gotten so whacked out that the kids are sensing that they are not invited into the larger culture that they see on TV," she said. "I think that's one attraction to gangs. "They could be the best and the brightest, but they check out very early. "I asked the guys in my class, 'When did you give up?"" she said. "Invariably, they say, 'It was at 11 when I turned off.' "They felt like they weren't being invited into the larger culture."