“But I was naive,” she told me. “I understood teenagers, but I didn't understand what was happening on the street.” On one occasion, shots rang out from a car—and one of the boys pushed her out of the way. “He put himself in front of me,” she told me. He was the one they were after. A week later the boy was killed. Another time, she said, “the police were putting terrible pressure on me to tell them what I knew about a gang crime.” She refused and was arrested, thereby demonstrating her loyalty to the gang members and shaming the kids into telling what they knew so she could be released: “I knew my willingness to go to jail would be the catalyst to get the kids to talk,” she said. “I got a lot of mileage out of that, believe me. It was not an impulsive decision.”
In the late '70s, the Los Angeles County probation department offered Sister Janet a job as a counselor to gangs—someone who would listen to their stories and act as a sounding board. As she talked to me, I was struck by the familial way she dealt with the Almighty. Sometimes, she said, when something untenable has gone on too long, “you just have to tell him off! Tell him you've had enough. I tell him off all the time.”
She deplores how fecklessly boys like Mario—who she says was misidentified as a gang member—get tried as adults and sent away forever. She keeps up a running dialogue with her favorite saints about the kids she defends. Recently, coming across a group of plaster Saint Francis statues at a garden nursery, she told him firmly, “'Francis, you wouldn't be a statue hanging around gardens if you were judged today on what you did in your youth.' Francis was an incorrigible youth,” Sister Janet reminded me. “He was a sinner; they would have put him away for life.”
That night I met Sister Janet at the screening of Mario's Story, which by then had won the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature at the L.A. Film Festival. The movie makes patent the failures of the California juvenile justice system, which allows inexperienced prosecutors to decide whether boys and girls as young as 14 are to be tried as juveniles or as adults, who can then be locked away for life. Mario's conviction, we discover, was based on the testimony of one “eyewitness,” who accused him of wielding a gun at a keg party where a 17-year-old youth from their gang-addled neighborhood in East Los Angeles was killed. In a series of jailhouse interviews, Mario, tall, soft-spoken, and articulate, seems neither angry nor bitter, though he has clearly absorbed what the stakes are when you're tried as an adult: “They give you a double life sentence, and in the state of California I would never be paroled unless there is a dramatic revolution in the system. So, realistically, a double life sentence becomes a death sentence.”
Sister Janet first met Mario Rocha in 1996, when she was serving as chaplain for the Los Angeles Central Juvenile Hall, the locked facility where hundreds of teenagers charged and convicted of crimes await trial and sentencing. Mario spent more than two years there. Sister Janet was supervising the hall's religious services and volunteers; she noticed Mario right away and arranged for him to participate in the writing program called InsideOut she had helped found. His teacher was a Los Angeles Times reporter, Duane Noriyuki, whom Sister Janet recruited for the program. Although Mario had been well on his way to dropping out of high school, in juvenile hall he was a star pupil.
We Hear You!