Panel discussion on "15 to Life: Kenneth's Story" highlights legal differences

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MANCHESTER >> After viewing the documentary "15 to Life: Kenneth's Story," several juvenile defenders and attorneys offered up their reactions to the public.

The Manchester Community Library showed the film on Thursday as part of its PBS Series. In attendance were Bennington County State Attorney Erica Marthage, Judge Cortland Corsones, Beth Sauseville, district director of the Bennington County Department of Children and Families, Bennington and Rutland Court Manager, Teri Corsones, Juvenile Defender, Jess Smith, and Judge David Howard, who currently presides in Bennington family court division.

In 2000, Kenneth Young was forced by his mother's drug dealer, Jacque Bethea, into robbing hotels with him. Bethea believed Young's mother, Stephanie Young, had stolen drugs from him.

The duo committed four armed robberies between June 5 and July 1 that year. Bethea, who had a long criminal record for cocaine trafficking and violence, received one concurrent life sentence, and Kenneth Young received four.

The film documents Kenneth Young's life since 2011, beginning with a resentencing. One female witness said she wrote Young in jail and forgave him because during a robbery he stopped Bethea from raping her. After Young served 11 and a half years in prison and professed his maturity and rehabilitation, Judge Daniel H. Sleet of Florida's second District Court sentenced him to 30 years in prison and 10 years of probation.

"We literally don't have the life without parole sentences that Florida does," Howard said. "At 14, he (Young) probably would have been in the juvenile division. I've been on the bench almost 20 years, and I suspect I can count on one hand my sentences that approached 30, 40 years. Most of those were very serious sex offenses."

Adele and John Miller, of Cambridge, N.Y. attended the film screening to learn more about the principles behind convicted juveniles. John Miller worked on the Board of Managers in Philadelphia in a correctional facility, which made the subject of interest to him.

"I'm concerned about their rehab and juvenile justice rather than retribution," he said. "When I worked in the jail in Philly, I was told to talk to the kids about their life and interests."

"I know nothing about their issues first hand," Adele Miller said. "I see it in the paper and on television, but that's it."

Young grew up in a crime-ridden neighborhood in Tampa, Fla., known as Suitcase City, under a single-mother after his father died before his first birthday. In Young's hometown, one in five children lived below the poverty line, according to the film's website.

Stephanie Young had Kenneth in her early 20's and just after his birth, she developed what would be a 19-year crack cocaine addiction, leaving her son and daughter at home alone frequently. Kenneth Young's sister got pregnant at age 15, and he dropped out of school at age 11 to take care of his nieces and work at a local fast food chain.

Marthage served as the moderator as the audience asked the panel questions about differences in the law from state to state, juveniles' environment influence and education, and why Judge Sleet made the decision he did in 2011.

"We all had an interest in this film in particular because it's so different from a philosophy of what we all see," Marthage said. "I think this is an important topic to talk about from the perspective of the community and what we all do."

In Bennington County, there's an effort on youth investment, but that's not statewide, Sauseville said.

"That makes us stand out in terms of our practice and our approach and how juveniles are charged in Bennington County," she said. "Listening to the victims, their experience is not to be taken lightly. My lens is very different from within, in terms of working with that population day in and day out. You have to see that there's hope and the ability for young folks to change their behaviors."

"The focus on education is in recognition of the fact that that's where the hope is," Teri Corsones said. "But then they'd be able to go down a different path. Rather than punishment, giving them the skills so that they don't continue to make decisions that are hazardous to them."

The panelists believe juveniles can make progress, but couldn't relate to Judge Sleet and his disapproval of Kenneth Young's development.

"I couldn't believe how that judge treated his [Young] 11 years of good effort. He just tossed it away. That just seemed incredibly, kind of cold," Cortland Corsones said. "I also wonder if this was the same judge that sentenced him before. Eleven years, it's quite possible it wasn't because they get elected...It may have been racism, I don't know. The big difference is judges in almost all states except for Vermont are elected judges. So, he's playing to a different audience, if you will. He's talking to the voters and saying I'm tough on crime, so when reelection time comes, keep that in mind."

For information on future events at the Manchester Community Library, visit mclvt.org.

— Makayla-Courtney McGeeney can be reached at (802)-447-7567, ext. 118.


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