Frontline received unlimited access to the Santa Clara, California juvenile court system to study four cases over the course of a year. The cases of Shawn, Jose, Marquese, and Manny are presented against the backdrop of changing attitudes about how to prosecute juvenile offenders. California, for instance, was in the process of considering Proposition 21, a law that would insure that many juvenile offenders would be tried as adults.

Shawn is from a middle class neighborhood in Los Altos. His crime: attempting to kill his father one Christmas night. Jose, often homeless, has been arrested for a gang related beating death. Manny, previously convicted of rape, attempted—with fellow gang members—to murder four people. Marquese is the only non-violent offender of the four. He is being charged with theft and already has seven other felonies on his record. Two possibilities exist for each case: being tried as an adult, or remaining in the juvenile system.

Defenders fight to keep their clients in the juvenile system. The juvenile system seems less harsh, with more possibilities for rehabilitation. Prosecutors fight to have them tried as adults by asking the hard questions: is it really possible that Shawn was sleepwalking when he attempted to kill his father? Doesn’t Jose’s involvement in a brutal beating death cross a certain line? Don’t Manny and Marquese’s repeated infractions show that rehabilitation has failed in the past?

Juvenile cases are complicated by the fact that half of the offenders come from dysfunctional families. Jose, Marquese, and Shawn have parents with substance abuse problems. Jose has often lived on the street and Manny found his only sense of belonging in a gang. Even when the juvenile system steps in, they may place the youth back into an unbalanced family situation. Even when the system seems to help someone, it provides only the barest of safety nets afterwards. How does the reformed youth, for instance, get a job when they have a felony record?

Frontline has offered a penetrating look at four youths, one juvenile court system, and the general problem of juvenile justice. During the filming, California passed Proposition 21, legislation that would probably have altered each of these cases. The legislation has left judges with less room to consider special circumstances for violent offenders, and assures that many youths will be tried as adults. While this change may represent current social attitudes toward juvenile crimes, it is far from clear that this legislation will better aid the rehabilitation of young offenders. Juvenile Justice offers little hope for youths like Shawn, Jose, Marquese, and Manny in the future.

Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.