‘Frontline’ Digital Special Examines an Issue of Juvenile Justice

By Mark Walsh — December 17, 2014 3 min read
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The PBS news documentary series “Frontline” is one of the best hours on television each week. One problem is, not every worthy story needs or fills an hour.

I discussed that back in July when “Frontline” paired two separate stories (of about 25 minutes each) into an hourlong episode under the theme of race and education. Neither of the pieces—on an effort to carve out a new city and school district from Baton Rouge, La., and an update on the progress of a New York City student—was enough to fill an hour, which is a bit of a problem when your show’s time slot is that length.

The folks at “Frontline” have come up with a different approach for a 30-minute documentary focusing on juvenile justice in California. “Stickup Kid” is being labeled a “digital exclusive,” meaning it appears online and not, evidently, any time soon on “Frontline”'s PBS slot. The film premieres digitally on Dec. 17. [UPDATE: It is now embedded here in full.]

“Stickup Kid” tells the story of Alonza Thomas, who was a 15-year-old high school freshman in Bakersfield, Calif., in 2000 when he says he was coaxed by an acquaintance into committing an armed robbery of a convenience store. Thomas’ gun discharged during the robbery, though no one was hurt. As Smith attempted to flee without any money, store clerks pinned him down and called the police. It was Thomas’ misfortune that he committed his crime soon after California voters had adopted a ballot measure making it easier to prosecute juvenile offenders for certain serious crimes as adults and send them to adult prisons.

Faced with three counts of armed robbery (one for each clerk in the store), Thomas agreed to plead guilty to one count. He was sentenced to 13 years.

The short documentary by Caitlin McNally provides some context for the debate, though a bit more detail would not have hurt. Some 6,000 people in the United States are serving in adult prisons for crimes they committed as juveniles, the film says. California’s get-tough ballot measure, we learn later, has been tempered by changes in state law, and fewer juveniles are ending up in adult prison.

Give “Frontline” credit for countering sympathetic statements from Thomas’ attorneys and family members, who question the harshness of his sentence in adult prison, with the perspective of the prosecutor who tried Thomas’ case. He gently bemoans Thomas’ “ex poste facto sob story.”

When Thomas gets out of prison (after apparently serving his entire 13-year sentence, or close to it), the prosecutor says that the ex-con deserves no more of a break than any “similarly situated person who hadn’t committed armed robbery would get.” That’s cold, but that’s what we expect from our prosecutors.

We see Thomas arriving at home after his release, where he begins his “honeymoon” period. Thomas seems to have a leg up over some ex-cons: He has the strong support of his family, including his younger brother, Phillip Thomas, who was drafted into the NFL while Thomas was in prison and now plays for the Washington Redskins.

Thomas observes that he has never held a job, never driven a car, and didn’t get to go to his high school prom.

“I’m learning things at 28 I should have learned at 15,” he says.

The film details some of the harsh conditions Thomas faced in prison, and some of the lingering effects on his psyche. Since the film skirts on some of the policy details, it’s not clear that it makes a convincing case through Thomas’ story alone that the state’s get-tough ballot measure was the wrong course.

A few more interviews with policy experts might have stretched the film from 30 minutes to 45 or 50 minutes. That length would have been enough to fill a full-fledged “Frontline” time slot on television.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.