It has often been said that it takes a village to raise a child. But another lesser-known African proverb cautions that a child who is not embraced by the said village would “burn the village down just to feel some warmth.” Juvenile Justice, the 10-episode Netflix k-drama about young offenders, is about those teens who exploit loopholes in the law and try to get away with burning it all down.
It is hardly a show to be entertained by, but it is a show worth thinking about and talking about. Like its controversial Netflix predecessors Extracurricular and D.P. (Deserter Pursuit), Juvenile Justice is as thought-provoking as they come, giving global k-drama viewers a glimpse of the jarring realities Korean youth face that the usual romcoms and even domestic crime shows dare not even touch.
Juvenile Justice opens with a bloodied young boy making his way through Christmastime Seoul. He’s disoriented and shivering in fear. Ultimately, he finds himself at a police station. We think he’s been beaten up by some bullies; that he’s an innocuous victim of some random crime. Then we see his bloodied ax in hand. The inconceivable truth slowly dawns upon us.
So what can the courts do when a heinous crime is committed by someone so young?
To find out, the show takes us into the inner workings of the Yeonhwa District Court’s juvenile criminal collegiate division and the lives of young offenders. We enter the world of juvenile delinquency and the legal thinking that surrounds their cases through three conflicting points of view. Judge Sim Eun-seok (Kim Hye-soo of Signal) is a cold and seemingly apathetic judge who confesses to “hating” these young criminals and bears no illusions about them. Her unsympathetic beliefs are challenged by her new partner, the more compassionate and humanistic Judge Cha Tae-ju (Kim Moo-yul of Bad Guys). These polar opposites have to work their arguments under Presiding Judge Kang Won-Jung (Lee Sung-min of Misaeng), who has the wisdom borne out of decades spent in the field of juvenile justice but is now getting ready to leave the court for the world of politics.
Through the three judges and the heavy cases they tackle, we learn about the shabby ecosystem that tries to provide support for young offenders but usually fails more than it succeeds. We learn why the Korean public is clamoring to abolish their Juvenile Act, and why they seek to enforce harsher punishment on juvenile offenders. But does harsher punishment really shape them into more responsible individuals? Or does it actually save the public from imagined future crimes? Intertwined with the stories of the young offenders are the backstories of the judges themselves; how they came to choose the life of the juvenile court, and how crime had altered their lives permanently. It is between the law and their personal convictions, as well as between their ideals and the world’s realities, that all the drama of Juvenile Justice takes place.
Juvenile Justice flows in the same contentious vein as its controversial Netflix forebears Extracurricular and D.P. (Deserter Pursuit), in tackling more socially-conscious and difficult subject matters without flinching or sugarcoating. It is an exhausting series to watch not only because it is devoid of any comedic relief or a love arc, but it also blatantly deals with crimes such as murder, mutilation, underage prostitution, sexual assault, child and domestic abuse, theft, drunk driving, rampant cheating in tests, and even gang rape. And if the cases were not already difficult by themselves, the show also depicts the media circus and relentless public sentiment that hound the judges and how these affect their deliberations and sentencing.
You need not know much about Korean law and courts to understand Juvenile Justice. The expository dialogue takes care of that, and it makes the episodes quite easy to follow. If this is your first time watching a Korean crime procedural, the show generously explains how very different their courts are from the American courts most of us are used to watching. It is important to note that the workload of a juvenile judge is very different from his Western counterpart. Korean judges have more leeway into checking the status of their cases and are tasked with questioning, supervising, and correcting the offenders before and after their cases are heard. Western and Korean police procedurals also differ in the amount of time they give to the victims or the victim’s families. Korean crime shows generously show the consequences of the crime on the victims, their immense grief, and how their lives have forever changed because of one horrible incident. This is important because it helps us understand the brand of justice that the judges dispense in order to give closure to the victims’ families. As Judge Sim remarks, “Young offenders get punished, but many more bear the crimes.”
Despite its title, the show is not a plain run-of-the-mill indictment of young criminals. In fact, it is to its credit that it takes great strides in depicting the rickety village that struggles to raise and heal the young offender. The show is an uncomfortable tour around the infrastructure that both supports and fails these teens. It takes us through the realities and the nightmares of poverty, of adoptive homes, neglectful and irresponsible parents, enabling friends and gangs, as well as the realities of flawed allies such as youth counselors with distorted priorities and social workers on the cusp of burning out. It gives us a peek inside the minds and hearts of these teens, their hatred and efforts at self-sabotage, and their resentment against their family and the pressures of Korean society. But it also shows us their longings and lonely dreams of being noticed and loved. Juvenile Justice does a fine job of holding a steady and fair mirror up to the ecosystem that surrounds (and gives birth) to juvenile crime, and shows both the disinterested and the humanistic angles in each case. As one judge remarked, “Juvenile crimes aren’t committed…they are something they sink into.” Along with the judges, we are handed a rather thorough depiction of the case and the situation the offender has sunk in, and are now invited to examine the merits of each case as fairly as possible.
Performance-wise, the veteran actors portraying the judges effortlessly sink into their roles as well, and remain the steady anchors of the show from start to finish. Lee Sung-min, who plays the veteran Judge Kang, is especially moving and memorable. But it is clear that the judges are not the focus of the series. Instead, the performances of the young cast that play the juvenile delinquents must be lauded; many of them have been able to pull off the difficult roles so convincingly that we thoroughly hate them in one minute, only to pity them afterward. The dialogue, while much is understandably expository for a global audience, is succinct and clear, and helps viewers understand why some cases are best remedied with a second chance, while others must be slammed down with a sledgehammer.
Some scenes may be a tad too unbelievable, such as a judge relentlessly hounding a teenage girl on foot, or a judge recklessly entering a space with a known offender, but we can willingly chalk these up to dramatic impact, and do not really deter from the show’s latent advocacy. Ultimately, what makes Juvenile Justice an important rather than an entertaining watch is that it is unafraid to take a hard look at the perils that Korean youth face without pandering to sentimentality or unrealistic drama. It takes its subject matter so seriously that it eschews the need for a soundtrack, for a love arc, or any humor. At its core, the show plainly asks: Who is to blame for juvenile crime? Ten episodes are enough to convince anyone that while teens share the moral responsibility for committing them, we as adults are to blame as well “for what we have done, and what we have failed to do,” as the old prayer goes.
There is a sense that its showrunners understand the gravity of their cause, and why a thorough look at Korea's existing Juvenile Act must come sooner rather than later. Let’s hope that Juvenile Justice, much like D.P. before it, becomes an instigator that opens up a much-needed social conversation about pressing current issues before it's too late. Otherwise, our societies may no longer be fit enough villages to raise them, for we will all have been burned down.