Karen Grau has documented many heartbreaking cases in her decade-plus career reporting on the juvenile-justice system, but maybe none sadder and more surprising than the story of Kenneth.
He's the centerpiece of the Indianapolis documentary-maker's latest work, Lake County Juvenile Justice
, a six-part series that takes us inside the juvenile center in Northern Indiana. He's 17 and when we first meet him, he's crying. He's been arrested because he and his 15-year-old brother, Kentrell, "had did some stuff over at the bus station." He wants to go home to be there to help with his brother, six sisters, nieces and nephews who live with his mother.
He looks young and helpless and innocent -- a fragile flower -- and you hope he gets to go home. He's that convincing.
Then we watch the flower wilt as we find out more about Kenneth's past crimes and his family history.
What Grau does here -- what she does so well -- is let the story unfold without comment or bias of any kind. She simply lets us learn about kids like Kenneth and Kentrell (who appears to have no remorse whatsoever until he begins copying his brother's tears) and the people inside and outside the justice system who have a hand in their future.
What we find are judges like Mary Beth Bonaventura doing the best they can against what appear to be hopeless odds.
Bonaventura handles a staggering 3,200 cases a year. She's sympathetic -- "Sometimes it's just survival," she says of the kids she sees. "They get out there and have to perpetrate before they're perpetrated against."
But she's tough enough to ignore the tears of a kid like Kenneth, a Gary native who, it turns out, has now been locked up seven times for crimes far worse than what he'd done at the bus station. We're left thankful that judges like Bonaventura are around to dispense reasoned, reasonable justice intended to get Kenneth and his brother the help they need so they don't end up in adult prison.
Part one of Lake County Juvenile Justice
also introduces us to Devon, an 18-year-old from Hobart who'd been picked up on a bench warrant issued when he was 17. When we meet Devon, his arm is in a sling, the result of a gunshot wound he suffered when he tried to rob a drug dealer.
Devon acknowledges that he's been locked up three of the past four years, and that he has a reputation as a drug dealer and a gang member.
"I like the rush of seeing how close I get to getting caught without actually getting caught," he says. It's an odd thing to say considering how many times he's actually been caught.
He also says, "As soon as I get this legal trouble out of the way, I'm going to have a good life."
With any luck, taking a bullet will be a wakeup call. But who knows?
Grau takes us inside a world that's typically closed to the media and, therefore, to most of us, which makes it endlessly fascinating. But it's her fly-on-the-wall storytelling style that makes Lake County Juvenile Justice
worth watching. She doesn't hype the stories, doesn't set out to create a world of villains and heroes. She simply lets us see how the world of juvenile justice works.
"This is the system," her work seems to be saying. "Make of it what you will."
Reruns of the previous week's installment of
Lake County Juvenile Justice will air at 9 p.m. Saturday, followed by new episodes.