This Frontline documentary, Second Chance Kids gives us an inside look at the fight of mandatory life sentences in juvenile justice. Following the 90’s tough-on-crime era and the birth of the “superpredator”, this documentary shows us the lives of two juvenile lifers, Anthony Rolon and Joe Donovan. Both men were waived and convicted as adults, and both were sentenced to mandatory life without parole in the state of Massachusetts. This documentary takes us through the landmark supreme court decisions that allowed the parole of these two lifers, as well as how our juvenile justice system has changed with new scientific understanding. Additionally, the rationale and effects that the tough-on-crime era had on juveniles and race is also discussed and highlighted.
Anthony Rolon, a black male, was sentenced to life without parole at the age of 17 years for the murder of another young man. His mother was an absentee parent and drug addict, and his father was a drug dealer. Rolon got into an altercation with several young men hosting a house party. The altercation started when Rolon went over and, for fear of the police coming around, asked them to quiet down. After a conflict broke out, Rolon stabbed another young man several times, killing him.
Joe Donovan was 17 years old when he was involved in an armed robbery of a MIT student. Donovan’s part was that he punched this student, but the incident turned into a felony murder when someone he was with stabbed the young man several times in the chest. The 15 year old that actually stabbed the student was too young to be tried as an adult, and the other individual took a plea deal, leaving Donovan to face first degree murder charges. Without directly murdering anyone, he was convicted and sentenced to mandatory life without parole.
Several years into the sentences, the supreme court ruled that sentencing a juvenile without considering extenuating circumstances was unconstitutional – meaning that automatic mandatory sentencing for those under the age of 18 was to be prohibited. These punishments, which were dolled out to juveniles during this “superpredator” era, were the justice system’s way of trying to appease and reassure the public that something was being done to fight the recent rise of crime.
As we have already explored in this class, the laws and actions that happened in response to this crime problem were disproportionate to young men of color and discriminated against black and Latino males. In her essay, Henning (2018) points out that during the “superpredator” hype in the 90’s, black boys were especially targeted and hyper criminalized. A predicted rise of violent crime perpetrated by young black men with no morality or remorse created a wave of fear that swept across America, and legislators scrambled to do something about it. Although the “superpredator” myth has been debunked and years of data show no corresponding rise in juvenile crime, the legislation and attitude towards young black men still remains.
This has added to the over-prosecution of not only black boys, but black men as well. In her essay, Davis (2018) establishes that black men are more likely to be prosecuted federally, leading to more substantial, punitive sentences. Additionally, Fairfax (2018) connects this prosecution with a grand jury indictment, stating that a black male perpetrator is more likely to be indicted, and in fact grand juries very rarely deny prosecutors a verdict. Even more so, when discussing juveniles, not only are black boys more likely to be perceived as adults by police (Laura, 2014), but they are also more likely to be tried as adults in court. The supreme court decisions in Miller v. Alabama and Montgomery v. Louisiana that banned mandatory life sentences for juveniles have been just the first step in undoing the punitive, discriminatory actions of the tough-on-crime era. It was these rulings that allowed Rolan’s and Donovan’s cases to be re-examined in consideration of release. The supreme court based their decisions off of new scientific evidence that suggests that juveniles cannot be held to the same accountability as adults due to a lack of development of the adolescent mind.
To fully appreciate the weight of this decision, we must understand that the prison system is not meant to be punitive, but restorative. If there is evidence that shows that violence juvenile offenders can mature to be non-violent men, our justice system must reflect that. Anyone wishing to understand the impact and struggle of the fight within the juvenile justice system would find Second Chance Kids well worth the watch. Not only does it focus on this issue, but also the evolution and change of our system regarding juveniles and race.
Davis, A. J. (2018). The prosecution of black men. In A. J. Davis, Policing the Black Man: Arrest, Prosecution, and Imprisonment (pp. 179-208). Vintage Books.
Dornstein, K. (Producer). Dornstein, K. (Director). (2017). Second Chance Kids[Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/second-chance-kids/
Fairfax, R. A., Jr. (2018). The grand jury and police violence against black men. In A. J. Davis, Policing the Black Man: Arrest, Prosecution, and Imprisonment (pp. 209-233). Vintage Books.
Henning, K. (2018). Boys to men: The role of policing in the socialization of black boys. In A. J. Davis, Policing the Black Man: Arrest, Prosecution, and Imprisonment (pp. 57-94). Vintage Books.
Laura, C. T. (2014). Being bad: my baby brother and the school-to-prison pipeline. Teachers College Press.