Produced as part of the acclaimed PBS series Frontline, the searing Stickup Kid tells the story of Alonza Thomas, a troubled young teen who was arrested following a botched armed robbery attempt at a gas station. Controversially, Alonza was sentenced to serve over a decade in a super-maximum security prison in Tehachapi, California; the kind of unforgiving establishment designed for the most hardened adult criminals. At the time of his sentencing, Alonza was just 16 years of age.
The state's harsh penalty for Alonza came on the heels of new legislation - Proposition 21 - which calls for a zero tolerance stance on juvenile crime. Alonza was the first youth to be sentenced under Proposition 21, and his incarceration has been the subject of passionate debate from both sides of the issue.
"These crimes are dangerous," says Ed Jagels, the District Attorney who successfully argued for Alonza's imprisonment. "What people have to remember is that a lot of people out there who are trying to make a living have a right not to be terrified."
For figures like Jagels, harsh sentencing for minor offenders serves its purpose as a justifiable deterrent, and rids the state of a menacing criminal element. Others, such as Alonza's defense attorney H.A. Sala, disagree. "When you're 14 or 15 years old, even if you commit a violent felony, the potential is great for rehabilitation," he claims in the film.
Stickup Kid provides adequate time to both points of view, and paints a disturbing portrait of a state that locks up more children per capita than any other. Perhaps the film's greatest virtue, however, is its painfully honest look at what life is like for Alonza while in captivity. The majority of his prison sentence has been served in outdoor cages and solitary confinement.
Society's desire to be free from the threat of crime is among the most understandable of impulses, and the United States criminal justice system is largely viewed as the key to fulfilling that desire. But an empowered society is also an informed one, and therein lies the major benefit of this haunting documentary short.