Panel discussion engages viewers of ‘They Call Us Monsters’

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Audience offers wide perspectives and reactions.

Thomas Macias

Sentencing juveniles convicted of serious crimes as adults may not be the most effective way to rehabilitate them, panels agreed at a screening of the 2016 documentary “They Call Us Monsters.”

The film was presented Feb. 14 in the nursing and allied health complex followed by a panel discussion and a question-and-answer session.

The event hosted by Dr. Lisa Ramos, coordinator of Mexican-American studies, featured panelists Beatrix Perez, sociology coordinator, and Oscar Ruiz, chair of public policy and service.

“They Call Us Monsters” looks at societal issues such as the processing of juvenile offenders ages 14-16 in the criminal justice system as adults.

Another important area centers on the cognitive development and decision-making ability of minors in dangerous home environments.

The film explores whether these should serve as considerations in the types and lengths of juvenile incarcerations.

Discussion of victims rights is presented and weighed against the redemptive benefit of offender rehabilitation.

The film is based on the experiences of former Los Angeles gang-members Juan Gamez, Antonio Hernandez and Jarad Nava.

Gamez and Nava were arrested at age 16 — Gamez for first-degree murder and Nava for attempting the murder of four people.

Hernandez was arrested at age 14 for attempted murder of two people.

Ruiz said his greatest take-away from the film was the poor defense offered by Nava’s attorney.

Nava was sentenced to 162 years.

Ruiz said that the defendant’s court-appointed attorney showed “little preparation” and no inclination to challenge any evidence offered by the prosecutor.

This impacted the length of the juvenile’s jail sentence, but more critically, it undermined the ability of the youth to receive a favorable ruling on appeal.

In not challenging the prosecutor, Ruiz said the defense attorney had left little basis to appeal any potential trial discrepancies.

“An appeal will be difficult,” Ruiz said.

Perez addressed a question related to the benefits of the rehabilitation offered to the three teenage protagonists.

In addressing whether the youths would have benefited more from vocational-type training rather than a screenwriting course, the main storyline of “They call us Monsters,” Perez said the value of the screenwriting was in its “therapeutic effects for the juveniles.”

Perez said that by including their oftentimes violent and personal experiences in the movie screenplay, for the first time, the teens came to reflect on their actions leading to incarceration.

Math sophomore Gilbert Gonzalez said attending the screening and the panel discussion gave him a greater perspective of the issues surrounding juvenile incarceration.

He said the greatest weakness of the film was that the teens were wrong in the violent crimes they had committed.

He thought defendants with less obvious guilt would have made for a stronger discussion.

In the panel session, accounting major sophomore Steven Graham questioned the spike in the number of Texas prisons built since the 1990s and noted many prisons are privatized.

In an interview afterward, Graham, U.S. Air Force combat veteran and a former basic training drill instructor, said that “since the 1990s the number of Texas prisons has grown from roughly 30 prisons to more than 100.”

Graham said that the Texas prison population had also grown.

According to a Nov. 27, 2014, blog by Reid Wilson in the Washington Post, the Texas prison population jumped from 50,000 in 1992 to 173,000 in 2013.

Ruiz said that the Texas prison population had fallen to a “current number of approximately 165,000.”

Privatized prisons were an incentive to incarcerate and hold larger prison populations, Graham said, as companies were paid by the number of individuals they held.

Such prisons became more profitable with a greater number of prisoners.

It was “fundamentally wrong” that privatized prisons were traded on NASDAQ. Graham said.

Graham said privatized prisons showed society had placed “profit over people.”

Graham said his experiences as an Air Force drill instructor showed him that youths with troubled pasts could be remade into productive members of society.


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