In this lesson, students will practice writing, listening, discussion, and research skills as they examine policies around juvenile sentencing in the United States.
Video clips provided with this lesson are from the film 15 to Life: Kenneth's Story, which follows a Florida man who received four life sentences at age 15 for a series of armed robberies. Imprisoned for more than a decade, he believed he would die behind bars. Now a U.S. Supreme Court decision could set him free.
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One 50-minute class period and additional time to review extension activities
- explore recent Supreme Court decisions regarding sentencing juveniles
- debate the United States' policy of sentencing juveniles to life in prison, especially in cases of non-homicide
- discuss Kenneth Young's case in the context of current legislation
- examine how focusing on rehabilitation for juvenile offenders might affect society at-large
- Internet access and equipment to show the class online video
- Copies of "Fate of 201 Youthful Offenders in Legal Limbo" by Lloyd Dunkelberger
- Chart paper and markers
1. Pursuing Dreams
- Divide students into groups of 3 or 4. Ask each group to read a portion of "Fate of 201 Youthful Offenders in Legal Limbo" by Lloyd Dunkelberger. Invite each group to identify five important things they learned from their selection, and to write them on their chart paper.
- Post the completed chart papers around the room and invite students to participate in a Gallery Walk. Ask students to read each paper and to return to their seats. Invite students to share some of what they learned during the Gallery Walk.
2. Kenneth Young's Story
Show Clip 1. Ask students to discuss the following:
- How does Kenneth's case relate to Dunkelberger's article?
- What are the implications of these Supreme Court decisions on the rest of society?
3. Should Juveniles Be Sentenced to Life Without Parole?
Show Clip 2.
- Ask volunteers to read portions of "About the United States Supreme Court Decision: Graham v. Florida."
- Invite students to compare the experiences and statistics presented in the clip with highlights from Graham v. Florida. Ask students to describe their impression of juvenile justice in America. Considering the articles they've read and what they know about Kenneth's story, what are the pros and cons of sentencing juveniles to life in prison? How about sentencing juveniles to life in prison, even in cases of non-homicide offenses like Kenneth's? What are the pros and cons of offering rehabilitative opportunities to juvenile offenders? Consider the question in relation to: the offender, their family, the victims, and society in general.
Either as homework or in class, if time allows, have students write a short persuasive essay arguing for or against sentencing juveniles to life in prison.
1. Examining Multiple Perspectives
Ask students to research articles and opinion pieces written by those in favor of and those opposing juvenile life sentences. These may include articles from the point of view of juvenile offenders and victims of crimes by juvenile offenders. [A note to teachers: Articles of this nature may be mature and/or include graphic content and should be reviewed.]
Lead students in a debate on the pros and cons of sentencing juveniles to life in prison.
Encourage students to find their own articles, but here are a few to get started:
- Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth: What People Are Saying
- Voices of Families of Victims
- Voices of Formerly Incarcerated Youth
- Denver Post: Some Juvenile Killers Deserve Adult Justice
- NPR: Do Juvenile Killers Deserve Life Behind Bars?
2. What's Happening In Your State?
Have students investigate legislation in their state around juvenile sentencing. Consider the following questions:
- At what age does your state consider an individual an adult?
- What is your state's current legislation around juvenile sentencing?
- Is your state currently considering new legislation around the issue?
- Do you agree with your state's stance on juvenile sentencing? Why or why not?
Have students write to prison officials and legislators to share their thoughts on the policies.
3. The History of Juvenile Justice in the United States
Have students research the history of the juvenile justice system in the United States, beginning with its establishment in 1899. Invite students to answer the following questions, either as a group discussion, presentations, or short essays:
- Why was the juvenile justice system established?
- How has it changed over time? What factors have contributed to these changes?
15 to Life
The official website for the film includes the trailer and more information about the film.
The POV site for the film includes a more comprehensive discussion guide with additional discussion prompts and activity suggestions.