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PBS’ Independent Lens to focus on juvenile justice reform

USC professor’s documentary inspires a new digital series about a teen tried as an adult in Tennessee

"Me Facing Life"
A screenshot from the documentary Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story (Photo/Courtesy of Dan Birman)

A USC professor will team with PBS and a Nashville media company to produce a digital series that explores juvenile sentencing laws in Tennessee.

Scheduled to appear over the next few months on Independent Lens, “Sentencing Children” features video pieces produced by Dan Birman of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, as well as USC alumna Megan Chao and Susy Garciasalas Barkley. The videos with be paired with stories written by Anita Wadhwani, an investigative reporter with The Tennessean.

The series was inspired by Birman’s documentary, Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story, which focused on Cyntoia Brown, a 16-year-old arrested for murder in 2004. Filmed over six years, the film took an in-depth look at Brown’s family, following her case through the judicial system, where she was tried as an adult, convicted and sentenced to life in prison with no chance of release for 51 years.

Independent Lens presents a series of documentaries akin to a film festival. When Me Facing Life premiered on the PBS program in 2011, it sparked a global conversation on the issue, and Birman continued to follow her case.

Me Facing Life was an attempt to understand Cyntoia’s back story so that we might bring some broader social discussions to light,” Birman said. “What we did not anticipate was just how far the documentary would reach or the amount of feedback it would receive, even many years later. Nor did we consider the possibility that Tennessee lawmakers would take a hard look at juvenile sentencing laws as a result of the documentary.

“Thanks to Independent Lens — specifically Lois Vossen and Stephen Talbot — ‘Sentencing Children’ takes this conversation to a new level.”

We’re teaching students to explore different ways of working on multiple platforms.

Dan Birman

Vossen, the executive producer of Independent Lens, said: “Dan and I have had a shared desire to follow Cyntoia’s story since before the documentary even aired. Dan’s extraordinary access to both Cyntoia in prison and many others working at the forefront of juvenile justice reform means this unique collaboration will explore the topic from multiple perspectives and continue to spark conversations that resonate in Tennessee and across our country.”

The new digital series reflects USC Annenberg’s commitment to innovative instruction and collaborative delivery, Birman said.

“We’re teaching students to explore different ways of working on multiple platforms. This is a series that’s rooted in video and text, presented on a digital platform and is shared through social media. Students can see this is the world they are moving into when they graduate.”

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PBS’ Independent Lens to focus on juvenile justice reform

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