“Stickup Kid” tells an ugly story. The PBS “Frontline” episode explores the world of juvenile crime, zero tolerance laws, kids in adult prisons, the psychological consequences of isolating prisoners and the ongoing challenges they face when released. Every angle of the story is told plainly, without pity, and the result is a story that should serve to remind us all that there are no winners when young people are sent away to do adult time.
There is no debate that Alonza Thomas committed a crime. As a runaway he was bullied into it by an older man who had offered Alonza food and a place to stay. The man gave him a gun, and Alonza robbed a QT gas station in Bakersfield, Calif. He was a 15-year-old high school freshman.
It didn’t go well. The gun went off, he ran, a clerk caught him and beat him, then the employees held him at gunpoint until the police showed up.
It was 2000, and California’s recently passed Proposition 21 all but guaranteed that he would be tried as an adult. Proposition 21 was written in response to the predictions of a coming wave of superpredators, remorseless, psychotic children who took pleasure in perpetrating horrible crimes. The superpredators never materialized, but the laws continue to play out.
Alonza was the first in his county tried under the new rules, and the prosecutor remains convinced that it was the right thing to do: Alonza didn’t deserve to be tried as a kid because of an “ex post facto sob story.”
Alonza’s mother agrees that something had to be done, but not that her son should have been tried as an adult nor received such a harsh sentence. Alonza pleaded guilty to avoid a longer sentence and spent 13 years in adult prisons, most of the time in 23-hour-a-day lockdown.
Living like this as a teen has a cost. It is not clear that Alonza will overcome the damage of his time on the inside.
In less than a half-hour “Stickup Kid” explores what that was like for him and his family and how they are all working now to help him adjust to the outside world. Alonza takes medication to combat psychosis, depression and anxiety. He struggles to adapt, to become an adult.
In many ways his development stopped at 15 and is just now resuming. The film, which aired Dec. 17, is a short, sharp reminder of unintended consequences and how laws can actually take us further away from justice. Take the time to watch it.