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HBO's role evolves with 'Innocent'

HBO already ranks at the top of the heap among cable channels in terms of viewership and critical attention. Now it has seen fit to spin off its own gold-label channel, HBO Signature, to highlight award-winning original programs and noteworthy theatrical films.

The latest offering on this self-styled prestige channel is a new documentary about young African-Americans in the American legal system, "Innocent Until Proven Guilty" (Sunday, Oct. 17, 7:45-9 p.m.). It underlines dramatic statistics about the incarceration rate of young blacks. For example, "One third of all African-American males between the ages of 16 and 35 are currently under criminal-justice supervision. In the District of Columbia, the [rate] is 1 of 2."

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The show details the efforts of a pair of dedicated men to stem the tide of young blacks heading for a dead end in the criminal-justice system. Identifying education and employment as the twin tools in this struggle, James Forman Jr., a public defender in Washington, D.C., co-founded a school in the inner city along with former attorney David Domenici in 1997.

"The notion that we've done away with segregation is meaningless to someone who lives in a poor, all-black neighborhood and goes to a poor, all-black school," said Mr. Forman in an interview about the program. Forman, whose father was a 1960s activist who stood beside President Lyndon Johnson when the 1964 Civil Rights Act was signed into law, said his job is to translate the legacy of civil rights into action for the disenfranchised of today.

The Maya Angelou Public Charter School opened with 20 students with the express purpose of educating young African-Americans about the legal system as they work toward a high school diploma.

The program chronicles the challenges encountered by these two surprisingly realistic, yet idealistic, lawyers to reach young, African-Americans whose experiences differ radically from their own.

The show pulls no punches in assessing the difficulties they face - 13 of the 20 students drop out by year's end, including Bobby, one of the three students who are the focus of the program.

"It's hard work being educated," says a frustrated Bobby. "I'm confused if I'm going to be an ignorant fool all my life," he says during a class in the program. "I'm trying to pick the good thing," he adds. "It's easy to pick the bad thing."

Bobby rallies as he contemplates his future ("I love a challenge"), but by the program's end, he is gone. A determined girl named Samantha appears to grasp the essential ingredient for success.

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"I made a commitment to my school," she says. "I have to stand up to my commitment."

James Forman has returned to his work with the public defender's office, but the school he helped found has acquired a life of its own. It has an operating budget of $1 million, with $3 million in capital-development funds. The year-round program includes academic and job programs, as well as residential and health services. The cost of educating a single student is $20,000. There are 56 students enrolled in the program, which runs from 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Throughout the somber hour and 15 minutes of "Innocent Until Proven Guilty," recurring statistics, each one grimmer than the last, remind viewers of the uphill challenge facing Mr. Domenici and his teaching staff ("Since 1985, the overall rate of incarceration for African-American males has increased 500 percent," and "African-American females represent the fastest growing segment of the prison population.").

But the deep conviction of those who run the program also permeates the dialogue between the young students and their not-so-senior teachers. "Innocent Until Proven Guilty" is a good reminder of the difference a few people can make when they see their jobs clearly. It is also happy evidence that at least a few executives at HBO have expanded their vision of the role cable television can play.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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