Alumna’s Organization, Film Confront Juvenile Justice Problems

Sarah Morris ’05 returned to campus for a Haverford House- and CPGC-sponsored screening of her organization’s documentary, Stolen Dreams, about teens tried and sentenced as adults

Many groups have mobilized across the country in response to the increasingly harsh treatment of youth who commit crimes, which has led to a spike in juveniles being incarcerated in adult correctional facilities. To bring this issue into public view, the Philadelphia organization Youth Art & Self-empowerment Project (YASP), which Sarah Morris ’05 helps coordinate, filmed a short documentary about young teens who were tried as adults and placed in adult prisons. Last Wednesday,  Haverford House and the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship (CPGC) hosted a screening of their film, Stolen Dreams, in the Stokes Multicultural Center.

The film includes interviews with current and former juvenile inmates as well as a judge, a social worker and teacher. Its goal is to spark student support for a repeal of Act 33, which was passed in 1996 and allows Pennsylvania prosecutors to charge people as young as 15 as adults for all “serious and violent” crimes. The film cites psychological studies which prove that the human brain, particularly the prefrontal cortex which is largely responsible for judgments, is not completely developed until 25. In addition, the film places much of the blame for juvenile crimes not on the individual, but on the lack of resources  in low-income neighborhoods.

But the documentary sees other dangers. For one, young inmates are much more likely to be sexually assaulted in prison than their adult counterparts. In addition, 40 percent of all adult prisons do not offer any educational services—a necessity for rehabilitation. The film’s message: these issues can be avoided in a juvenile correctional facility.

However, the consequences of these laws on juvenile sentencing can get even more personal. Joshua Glenn, who helped film the documentary and was also interviewed in it, told the audience in the talk afterwards that he had spent 18 months in an adult prison at the age of 16 only to have his case dismissed in court.

“You can’t get that time back,” he told the audience.

Morris said that she had met one inmate who was later released, but faced $10,000 in legal costs afterwards. YASP believes that laws like Act 33 commonly create these unfair situations and lead to irrevocable damage to both the teen and his or her family.

An ironic and tragic coda to the story is that the supposed teenage criminals who initially ignited many of these tough laws—a group of adolescents the police believed had raped a female jogger in Central Park—turned out to be innocent after police uncovered DNA evidence 13 years later.

–Matt Fernandez ’14