MANCHESTER — Between ages 10 and 17, an individual cannot be tried as an adult under the court of law in the state of Vermont, but as a juvenile delinquent. Those in custody could be sentenced to years in prison without parole.
That's what happened to Kenneth Young in 2000. He was tried as an adult in Florida at 15 years old, for assisting a month-long spree of four armed robberies. He received four consecutive life sentences. Young, and 2,500 other juveniles in the United States, are in the same boat and are expected to die in prison for committing non-lethal crimes, according to PBS.
The film "15 to Life: Kenneth's Story" will be shown at the Manchester Community Library on Thursday at 6 p.m. as part of its PBS Film Series. A 30-minute discussion with a panel will follow. The event is free and open to the public.
"It's an important issue for the community to consider and make sure they are making their opinions and thinking about the matter, known. To me, the reason I think a lot of the people on the panel have always worked in the juvenile justice system, is because that's the time frame of the kid's life that can have a lasting impact," State Attorney Erica Marthage said. "How we deal with juvenile defenses — crimes committed by younger people — and how we address those, is how we can prevent those individuals from committing crimes as they get older."
Along with Marthage, the panel will consist of Beth Sauseville, district director of the Bennington County Department of Children and Families; Cortland Corsones, juvenile court judge in Bennington; Teri Corsones, Bennington/Rutland court manager; juvenile defender Jess Smith; and David Howard, presiding judge of the Bennington Family Division.
The U.S. is the only country with this sentencing. Last year, Gov. Peter Shumlin signed H. 62 into law, eliminating life without parole for juveniles. Vermont is the 12th state to do so.
"We're pretty progressive in Vermont to begin with," Sauseville said. "Our workers have the skill and experience to work with that population better than anyone else."
In Bennington County, Marthage hasn't noticed a change in the rate of crimes committed by youth, but has seen the type of crime alter due to the increase of drug use.
"Kids in that age range (15-18) are subjected to a more unstable environment because their parents are involved in drugs. I am seeing kids under 18 using heroin or prescription drugs, but the majority of crimes are similar to what we've always seen," she said. "Stealing, vandalism, shoplifting, and assaultive crimes between peers. I know the drug problem has had a significant impact. If their parents are using or not home, there's not a stable environment."
Sauseville, who utilizes the youth assessment screening instrument (YASI) when working with convicted juveniles, noted that there's more to youth than just the crime committed.
"Warehousing people in prison doesn't accomplish anything but warehousing people in prison. Sooner or later a majority of those people come back in society and it's really difficult," Sauseville said. "When you take youth, developmentally, what happened to them is so flawed on so many levels."
Even though Kenneth's story took place in Florida, it's something the community should be educated about, Marthage said.
"They need to have a better understanding how the juvenile system currently works," she said. "I think it's something everyone needs to be thinking about, how individuals break the law under the age of 18. How are we addressing those situations to make sure we're having a lasting impact? With the kind of growing drug issues we're seeing in defendants that are younger and younger, whether drug related or not, people under drugs have lower inhibitions, committing violent crimes, something they wouldn't do otherwise."
The Manchester Community Library is located at 138 Cementary Ave. Visit mclvt.org for more information on the PBS Series.
— Makayla-Courtney McGeeney can be reached at (802)-447-7567, ext. 118.