By Elizabeth Waibel
What is the right thing to do when a teenager commits a crime? What makes teens commit murder?
The Center for Just and Caring Communities hosted a preview screening Feb. 15 of a documentary that brings to light some of the issues surrounding juveniles and justice through the story of one girl.
“Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story” follows Cyntoia Brown from the time she kills a man at age 16 through the time she is tried as an adult and sentenced to life in prison. The film focuses on her family history and the events that shaped her up to that point in her life.
After the film, a panel of people involved in social work and juvenile justice in West Tennessee discussed how the courts and communities should deal with juvenile offenders and stop them from committing crimes in the first place.
“We’ve got to have that debate about what we’re going to do about young people who commit horrendous crimes,” said Judge J. Roland Reid, juvenile court judge in Haywood County.
He said judges are often faced with cases similar to Cyntoia’s and must decide whether the juvenile justice system has the time and resources to try to reform the child.
Amy Barcroft, juvenile justice liaison for the Department of Child Services, said the legal system is black and white, but the lives of juvenile offenders are not.
“We have to try to address the needs of the offender, address the needs of the victim, address the needs of the community — we’ve got all this and we’ve got one system that tries to do that,” she said.
Twana Miller, juvenile justice program coordinator manager for the Tennessee Center for Child Welfare, said studies show that a girl with Cyntoia’s background is likely to enter the criminal justice system.
“It’s not just the legal system, it’s the fact that there are no preventative measures for someone like Cyntoia,” Miller said.
In the documentary, Cyntoia talked about being sexually abused since childhood. The night she committed murder, her abusive boyfriend had sent her out to work as a prostitute and bring back money.
Her psychiatrist speculated that she may have borderline personality disorder brought on by a strong family history of mental illness and an unstable childhood. Her biological mother became pregnant when she was 16 and drank heavily during pregnancy.
Throughout the documentary, Cyntoia and those around her tried to sort out what went wrong and whether there was any way for her crime to be prevented.
Several panel members emphasized the need for communities to intervene before children commit crimes that place them in the justice system, despite a lack of funding.
Dr. Janet Furness, associate dean of social work, said intervention needs to start small and close to home.
“Sometimes we’re just not going to have the money right away, and there’s going to be some sacrifice,” she said. “We talk about needing to have sacrifice when we’re in an international military conflict-type setting — well, we’re going to have to sacrifice at home because we’re not going to get the money from the politicians to do what we need to do.”
Barcroft said intervening in children’s lives starts with creating strong communities.
“We cannot rely simply on agencies, police officers, social workers, teachers and judges to fix this problem,” she said. “We’ve got to be the glue.”
“Me Facing Life” is expected to premier nationwide on PBS’s “Independent Lens” program in March. For more information, check pbs.org/independentlens.