Questions surrounding the exemption of justice appear in a somewhat more exaggerated form in the US, where children are locked up at a rate seven times higher than in the UK. Kid Criminals is an explorative and informative documentary following a new, progressive approach to this problem, as it is trialled in Indiana.
The approach embraces psychological individualism – a method which looks set to revolutionise everything from cancer treatment, to tackling obesity. Our own Department of Justice has a similarly positive, ‘child-centred’ approach to juvenile rehabilitation, which encourages academic or vocational qualifications and teaches child offenders to engage productively with society, rather than be trapped in a cycle of punitive temporary exclusions from it. This means that the ideas and problems seen in the documentary are easily applicable closer to home.
Although I watched it on its own, this is the second episode in the two-part series. It seems substantially less contentious than the one on young sex offenders, but it still used the technique of delayed revelations to jolt viewers out of feeling too much empathy. In a girl’s correctional facility, Amanda Artyamsoal stropped like an immature seventeen year old, protesting in a hurt tone, “people think I’m a bad person, but they just don’t know my story”, and Cyleina Briggs is endearingly childish in a phone conversation with her stepfather. It transpires that Artyamsoal was involved in a house fire which killed three children; Briggs was convicted of the armed robbery of a neighbour.
When the narrator informs us that they, along with the boy we witness pulverise another boy in a frenzy of blows, could be released from the juvenile facility within months as opposed to the years an adult or child in a different system would expect, the scheme seems dangerously ambitious. Unfortunately, the system’s novelty means that statistics which could help to evaluate the system are sparse.
Instead, the children themselves are our primary source of evaluation. The producers wisely decided to focus on a few individuals, giving us more of a window into their psychological state. This is needed for us to engage with the difficult balance which must be made for those who have committed serious crimes but whose development may still be constructively directed. Interviews with family members rounds out their profiles and helps us see the ‘students’, a moniker chosen to emphasise rehabilitation and is balanced by the voice-over’s depersonalising insistence on surnames, as human beings with potential.
As such, the staff – all realistic but hopeful – require little focus, but a BBC Panorama exposing abuse in teenage prisons highlights the importance, and difficulty, of finding people like those we see in Indiana, and is a worthwhile supplementary watch.
Kid Criminals is an engaging treatment of an issue we don’t often hear about. The cautious optimism it displays for a considered approach for young offenders, and the equally considered production, certainly deserves more than the lazy shock headlines which accompanied the first episode.