When Kenneth Young was fourteen, he was involved in a series of armed robberies in Florida and Georgia. He was convicted and received three consecutive life sentences for the crime. He spent the next eleven years in prison. When the Supreme Court declared the life incarceration of minors unconstitutional, Young's lawyer saw a chance for him to receive clemency. 15 to Life: Kenneth's Story shows his struggle not to be exonerated for his crimes, but to overturn his overly harsh sentence. The film is fairly pedestrian on a cinematic level, but the story is powerful and keeps the viewer riveted.
The film covers Kenneth's re-sentencing hearing as his lawyer, a Florida law professor, argues that while Kenneth is certainly responsible for his crimes, he feels remorse and has matured and rehabilitated during his time in prison. He also argues that the culture of condemning children to die in prison is immoral and barbaric. We also meet Kenneth's mother Stephanie, a former drug addict whose dealer was the criminal who cajoled Kenneth into committing the robberies.
There is no doubt that the filmmakers are sympathetic to Kenneth's case, and it becomes clear early on that at worst Kenneth was pressured into committing the crimes and was the less active participant when compared with his accomplice, a much older and more hardened criminal. One of the more harrowing interviews involves a woman who was assaulted during one of the robberies. She makes it clear that were it not for Kenneth's intervention, his accomplice would have undoubtedly raped her. It's in these scenes that the film carries the most power, when it lets the people involved tell their stories.
Aside from its subject matter, the film does very little to distinguish itself. The cinematography is borderline amateurish and the editing is uninspired, and the movie does very little to heighten the tension. Luckily for the filmmakers the situation is compelling enough on its own. There is no doubt that race plays a large part in these unbalanced sentences, and it becomes obvious during the courtroom scenes that there is a bias against Kenneth because he is a black man. The film left me angry about the state of justice in our country, particularly in Florida. On that level, the makers of 15 to Life succeeded.