Ofra Bikel’s powerful documentaries for PBS’s Frontline on the inequities, paradoxes and sometimes downright cruel loopholes in our country’s justice system have a calm presentational style that belie their simmer-to-a-boil outrage. Unlike Michael Moore’s barn-burning techniques, Bikel — who leaves narration duties to Frontline go-to voice Will Lyman — cultivates infuriation in the viewer through an almost Zen-like assemblage of facts and interviews. She’s gotten wrongfully imprisoned men freed through her careful, deliberate journalism, but there’s a nagging suspicion that the five wretched souls profiled in her latest dispatch, “When Kids Get Life” (airing Tues., May 8), will never see the outside of their cells.
They are Colorado inmates who, thanks to a state Legislature that responded to a wake of youth crime in the 1980s and 1990s with laws that allowed prosecutors to bypass juvenile-court judges and prosecute kids as adults, are serving life terms with no parole for crimes committed as teenagers. They’re not cut-and-dried cases, necessarily — culpability is there — but they show such obvious room for compassion, mitigation and rehabilitation that their stories are unequivocally heartbreaking.
Jacob Ind, now 29, whose defense for killing his stepfather was years of rape, tells Bikel he was hardly in a position to understand the permanency of taking another life at the age of 15, just the desire to end his own suffering. Trevor Jones tried to scam a fellow high school classmate in an illegal gun deal that turned sour when the firearm went off and killed Jones’ mark. The jury ruled reckless manslaughter, but the controversial felony murder law — accounting for death that occurs during an armed robbery — bumped him to life with no parole, no questions asked. Well-adjusted Erik Jensen had been trying to better understand the strange behavior of his abused friend Nathan Ybanez. When Ybanez lost it and killed his mother, Jensen — with no criminal record — was fingered by another friend as an accomplice.
Colorado recently passed a bill that allowed the possibility of parole after 40 years, but to get it through the Legislature, retroactivity was taken out. These young men will perish in prison. It makes “When Kids Get Life” at heart a murder story, but about the willful killing of second chances. It will knock the wind out of you.
Click here to watch a preview of “When Kids Get Life”