Dances With Films 2023 Review: DISTRICT OF SECOND CHANCES
Wynette Yao's documentary tells the stories of three adults sentenced to life imprisonment for heinous crimes committed in their youth.
When do you become an adult, fully responsible for your own actions?
District of Second Chances
The documentary enjoyed its world premiere at Dances With Films.
They all committed heinous crimes. They all admit their guilt for the loss of lives they have caused. Do they deserve a second chance?
Filmmaker Wynette Yao tells the stories of three young men who all committed heinous crimes and were sentenced to life imprisonment. Before the 1990s, that rarely happened in the United States. During that decade, however, a 'tough on crime' movement swept through state legislatures, resulting in many, many teenagers and young adults receiving life sentences without the possibility of parole.
This was especially acute in the District of Columbia, an area with under a million residents, about half of whom are Black, growing up in dangerous, crime-ridden neighborhoods (think of The Wire, set in neighboring Baltimore). Anthony "Pete" Petty, Gene Downing, and Colie Levar Long all grew up in such neighborhoods. They were not compelled to commit crimes or to kill other people. Nonetheless, they did; they were caught, convicted, and sent to rot in prison.
The documentary presents interviews from various experts that suggest they were too young to receive such sentences, that they were not yet adults and fully responsible for their actions. Legislation in the District of Columbia was eventually passed that gave such offenders 'second chances' by releasing them early from their long prison sentences.
What have they done since release? District of Second Chances documents their actions in the relatively short time, but it's all good and worthwhile. As one attorney says, the legislation is not a 'get out of jail free' card, like in Monopoly; cases are reviewed rigorously, and the offender must have shown through their actions in prison that they are not dangerous or a threat to society.
As an advocacy doc, the film does a good job in building a case that everyone deserves a second chance. Since the crimes include murder, though, I would have liked to hear from some family members of the victims. What is their reaction to the laws that have been passed?
Perhaps the film's greatest accomplishment is to prompt the viewer to consider their own answer to that question. How would I feel if my child had been murdered and now the offender has been set free? Could my heart embrace the offender and his family, and the pain and sorrow they have experienced for many years? Who am I to judge another?
Murder is a single action that has rippling effects upon all the lives involved. District of Second Chances raises many thoughtful questions that deserve to be considered thoughtfully.