15 to Life

PBS Premiere: Aug. 4, 2014Check the broadcast schedule »

Kenneth's Story: Lesson Plan: Should Juveniles Be Sentenced to Life in Prison?

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In this lesson, students will practice writing, listening, discussion, and research skills as they examine policies around juvenile sentencing in the United States.

Video clips provided with this lesson are from the film 15 to Life: Kenneth's Story, which follows a Florida man who received four life sentences at age 15 for a series of armed robberies. Imprisoned for more than a decade, he believed he would die behind bars. Now a U.S. Supreme Court decision could set him free.

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By the end of this lesson, students will:

  • explore recent Supreme Court decisions regarding sentencing juveniles
  • debate the United States' policy of sentencing juveniles to life in prison, especially in cases of non-homicide
  • discuss Kenneth Young's case in the context of current legislation
  • examine how focusing on rehabilitation for juvenile offenders might affect society at-large


9 -- 12


U.S. Government and Politics



One 50-minute class period and additional time to review extension activities


Clip 1: Kenneth's Story (approx. 8:22 min.)
The clip begins at 1:16 with Paolo Annino (Kenneth's lawyer) discussing the particulars of Kenneth's case and the Graham v. Florida (2010) decision. The clip ends at 9:38 with Chief George Steffen of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office assessing Kenneth's involvement in the robberies.

Clip 2: Juvenile Justice and Rehabilitation (approx. 7 min.)
The clip begins at 29:34 with juvenile incarceration statistics and Pinellas Public Defender Patrice Moore discussing Kenneth's case and some of the factors involved in juveniles ending up in court. The clip includes interviews and court footage relating to Kenneth's case, relating to life sentences and rehabilitation. The clip ends at 36:25 with Kenneth discussing his life before he came to prison.


1. Pursuing Dreams

  • Divide students into groups of 3 or 4. Ask each group to read a portion of "Fate of 201 Youthful Offenders in Legal Limbo" by Lloyd Dunkelberger. Invite each group to identify five important things they learned from their selection, and to write them on their chart paper.
  • Post the completed chart papers around the room and invite students to participate in a Gallery Walk. Ask students to read each paper and to return to their seats. Invite students to share some of what they learned during the Gallery Walk.

2. Kenneth Young's Story
Show Clip 1. Ask students to discuss the following:

  • How does Kenneth's case relate to Dunkelberger's article?
  • What are the implications of these Supreme Court decisions on the rest of society?

3. Should Juveniles Be Sentenced to Life Without Parole?
Show Clip 2.

  • Ask volunteers to read portions of "About the United States Supreme Court Decision: Graham v. Florida."
  • Invite students to compare the experiences and statistics presented in the clip with highlights from Graham v. Florida. Ask students to describe their impression of juvenile justice in America. Considering the articles they've read and what they know about Kenneth's story, what are the pros and cons of sentencing juveniles to life in prison? How about sentencing juveniles to life in prison, even in cases of non-homicide offenses like Kenneth's? What are the pros and cons of offering rehabilitative opportunities to juvenile offenders? Consider the question in relation to: the offender, their family, the victims, and society in general.

Either as homework or in class, if time allows, have students write a short persuasive essay arguing for or against sentencing juveniles to life in prison.


1. Examining Multiple Perspectives
Ask students to research articles and opinion pieces written by those in favor of and those opposing juvenile life sentences. These may include articles from the point of view of juvenile offenders and victims of crimes by juvenile offenders. [A note to teachers: Articles of this nature may be mature and/or include graphic content and should be reviewed.]

Lead students in a debate on the pros and cons of sentencing juveniles to life in prison.

Encourage students to find their own articles, but here are a few to get started:

2. What's Happening In Your State?
Have students investigate legislation in their state around juvenile sentencing. Consider the following questions:

  • At what age does your state consider an individual an adult?
  • What is your state's current legislation around juvenile sentencing?
  • Is your state currently considering new legislation around the issue?
  • Do you agree with your state's stance on juvenile sentencing? Why or why not?

Have students write to prison officials and legislators to share their thoughts on the policies.

3. The History of Juvenile Justice in the United States
Have students research the history of the juvenile justice system in the United States, beginning with its establishment in 1899. Invite students to answer the following questions, either as a group discussion, presentations, or short essays:

  • Why was the juvenile justice system established?
  • How has it changed over time? What factors have contributed to these changes?


15 to Life
The official website for the film includes the trailer and more information about the film.

The POV site for the film includes a more comprehensive discussion guide with additional discussion prompts and activity suggestions.


Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects

  • SL.9-10.1, 11-12.1 Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade level topics, texts and issues, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
  • SL.9-10.1.D Respond thoughtfully to diverse perspectives, summarize points of agreement and disagreement, and, when warranted, qualify or justify their own views and understanding and make new connections in light of the evidence and reasoning presented.
  • SL. 9-10.2, 11-12.2 Integrate multiple sources of information presented in diverse media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) evaluating the credibility and accuracy of each source.
  • SL. 9-10.3, SL.11-12.3 Evaluate a speaker's point of view, reasoning and use of evidence and rhetoric, assessing the stance, premises, links among ideas, word choice, points of emphasis and tone used.
  • R.I. 11-12.7 Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words in order to address a question or solve a problem.
  • W.9-10.2, 11-12.2 Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization and analysis of content.

McREL a compilation of content standards and benchmarks for K-12 curriculum by McREL (Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning)

  • Language Arts, Standard 9: Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media.
  • Thinking and Reasoning, Standard 3: Effectively uses mental processes that are based on identifying similarities and differences.
  • Civics, Standard 18: Understands the role and importance of law in the American constitutional system and issues regarding the judicial protections of individual rights.
  • Civics, Standard 19, Level IV (Grade 9-12) 7: Knows how to use criteria such as logical validity, factual accuracy, emotional appeal, distorted evidence and appeals to bias or prejudice in order to evaluate various forms of historical and contemporary political communication.
  • Civics, Standard 21: Understands the formation and implementation of public policy.

Stephanie Joy Tisdale is an educator and the Associate Editor of Liberator Magazine. She has spent the last 10 years teaching elementary, middle and high school students. She now works as a curriculum writer and consultant.