'Natural Life' Documentary Asks if Juvenile Life Sentences Are Natural – or Death

Currently, 100 juveniles in Illinois face natural life in prison, but following an Illinois Supreme Court ruling earlier this year, 85 of them are now eligible for early release pending new hearings.

So the timing of director Tirtza Even‘s film, Natural Life, seems especially appropriate, and recently about 40 people attended a screening of the documentary at the Gene Siskel Film Center in downtown Chicago.

Using Kickstarter to raise at least $20,000 and directed in tandem with the legal efforts of The Law Offices of Deborah LaBelle, the 77-minute film took three years to produce. The goal of the film is simple: Challenge inequities in the juvenile justice system, such as the skewed racial makeup of inmates here and nationally, and particularly challenge the idea that juveniles should face “natural life” – a life of imprisonment when the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 ruled that mandatory juvenile life without parole, even in the case of homicide, amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.

An inmate sits solitary in his cell, serving out a life sentence while convicted as a juvenile
An inmate sits solitary in his cell, serving out a life sentence while convicted as a juvenile

The Illinois high court followed that with the Adolfo Davis case, ruling that retroactivity can apply unless the original sentence was at the discretion of the judge. So 15 of the 100 juveniles serving life now in Illinois do not quality under the ruling, while retroactivity allows the other 85 new hearings.

The film, making no apologies, calls out this seeming injustice, noting that so many of the youth facing the sentence committed the act long before their brains had matured to make adult decisions – a hones on the fact that there are youth who receive such severe sentences despite the apprehension, neglect, and alienation that many of these youth faced growing up.

Although 41 states – including Illinois – have laws that enforce a sentence of life without parole on youth under the age of 18, the state of Michigan is an extreme case of the use of the natural life sentence. In fact, 358 juveniles – nearly 15 percent of the number of juveniles in the world currently serving a life without parole sentence – are in the Michigan penitentiary system.

Of the four convicted criminals the film shadows, all came from a poor socio-economic background. There was Barbara Hernandez, 38, who was just 16 when she was sentenced to life in prison for buying a knife which her boyfriend ended up using to kill a man whom Hernandez had been asked to lure into her boyfriend’s home. Despite not killing the man, Hernandez was charged on the basis of acting with evil intent. She said in the movie? she was really just trying to stay on positive terms with her boyfriend.

The film sketched a bleak reality that juveniles face in the American criminal justice system, particularly regarding acts of homicide. As in Hernandez’s case, adult sentencing and life imprisonment didn’t require having committed actual murder.

Frances Herrera-Lim, who went to see the film with her friend Evan Hillis, spoke to how the film resounded with her.

“I work as a cook in a cafeteria with a co-worker who was originally sentenced to life imprisonment as a juvenile,” Herrera-Lim said. “Watching the film makes me wonder what kind of a position you have to be in, in life, to end up in the situation that these young people were in? You hear their stories in the film, and their crimes tend to be onset by losing the love of their boyfriends, or losing the love of their families.”

A guard stands watch outside a prison where one of the inmates featured in 'Natural Life,' now 38 and sentenced at 16, is held
A guard stands watch outside a prison where one of the inmates featured in ‘Natural Life,’ now 38 and sentenced at 16, is held

Added Hillis: “When you look at the situations these kids went through, they were ripe for getting stuck in a bad situation.”.

Even shed some light on personal experiences which led her to work on a film centered upon juvenile criminal justice.

“Originally, I used to work and keep in contact with a kid who was sentenced to life without parole,” Even said. “Then I got a job at the Art Institute, but I was looking to make something that would be appealing and have an impact on all people.”

The film makes the case that our laws leave little leniency for mistakes of immaturity. Yet, as an attorney in the film states, do these youth have a moral obligation to atone for the crimes they commit at 14 or 15 in the most severe way possible?

In addition to Hernandez, the film included a look into the lives of Matthew Bentley, Kevin Boyd, Efren Paredes, and Jennifer Pruitt. All were sentenced to life without parole as juveniles.

The film serves as one rallying point for a hunger strike set to take place from July 2 through July 9 throughout all Illinois’ prisons, Cohen said. The prison hunger strike may not immediately benefit the prisoners serving life sentences, but it would serve as part of a movement against torture in the Illinois prison system. Torture, as defined by Cohen, is in part defined that the practice of solitary confinement – keeping prisoners inside cells of less than 20 square feet for 23-and-a-half hours a day, everyday.

“The level of trauma that these juveniles experience even before they are charged as criminals is just devastating,” said Curly Cohen, a public relations official for Affordable Power and Justice  who attended the screening. “Then we trap them inside a seven-and-a-half foot by 22-inch cell, that’s just a recipe to incite more murder.”

“When you look at the situations these kids went through, they were ripe for getting stuck in a bad situation,” Hillis said.

There is no single release date for the film. Accoding to Even, the piece has just entered a distribution contract with Video Data Bank in Chicago and Heure Exquise in France. Even has many screenings in the planning, and the film’s showing at the Gene Siskel Film Center is what she considers to be the very beginning of its time on the film circuit.

A preview of the film, from the Kickstarter page, can be seen below:

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