Kids for Cash

February 9, 2014 - This documentary tells the story of two judges in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania who were accused by the federal government of taking kickbacks in exchange for keeping a newly-built, privately-run juvenile detention center filled with kids. That initial indictment accused the judges of jailing kids in exchange for cash. The "Kids for Cash" name has stuck, even though the charges that the judges pleaded guilty to or were convicted of never reflected such a quid-pro-quo arrangement.

The producer/director is Robert May (The War Tapes, Bonneville), who makes his home in Luzerne County. The "stars" are a few of the young people sent away by Juvenile Court Judge Mark Ciavarella, their families, and Ciavarella himself. A reporter from the local newspaper provides a running narrative that offers background and context.

The scandal broke in January 2009, when Luzerne County Judges Michael Conahan and Mark Ciavarella were indicted by the federal government. The indictments led to the revelation that Ciavarella had been sending hundreds of juveniles a year to the aforementioned juvenile detention center and other facilities as punishment for crimes that often seemed very minor. The juveniles were sent away following court appearances that usually lasted only minutes and where, in many cases, they had no legal representation. Through the efforts of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, thousands of juveniles in Luzerne County had their records expunged after Ciavarella's indictment.

May's documentary follows four families whose lives were impacted by Ciavarella's brand of juvenile justice. The juveniles and their families talk the initial offense that first brought them to Ciavarella's courtroom. They went expecting the proverbial slap on the wrist, and recalled their shock and anger over the swift and seemingly severe punishment. In three of the four cases, that first trip to detention led to an odyssey through the juvenile justice system that went on for several years. One of those young people ultimately committed suicide, which his mother emphatically blames on Ciavarella.

As heart-breaking as those stories are, the interviews with Ciavarella are actually more compelling. He steadfastly denies taking kickbacks in exchange for sending kids to the new detention center and, in fact, that allegation was never raised at his trial. Ciavarella did admit to not reporting the finder's fee he received from the developers of the detention center, and he was eventually convicted on tax evasion and related charges. He's currently serving a federal prison sentence that may very well keep him behind bars for the rest of his life.

Overall review: *** The film does an excellent job of telling the story from all sides. The interviews with the juveniles, the families and Ciavarella all have a lot of emotion.

What the movie does best, though, is provide context. It takes us back to 1995 when Ciavarella was running for a seat on the Luzerne County bench. He had a campaign ad in which he promised, if given the chance, to be tough on juveniles who commit serious crimes. After his election, he visited schools throughout the county and warned students to behave or risk severe consequences if they showed up in his courtroom. Schools invited Ciavarella back year after year, especially as they adopted strict zero-tolerance policies after Columbine. The newspaper reporter featured in the documentary points out that Ciavarella was sending lots of kids to detention even before the new facility was built. After the facility was built, the voters of Luzerne County retained Ciavarella for a second 10-year term.

The movie also refuses to let the parents off the hook. The boy who eventually killed himself was set up by his own parents. Another youngster was arrested for riding a stolen dirt bike, a bike that his parents bought for him. When the time came for court, the parents signed waivers giving up their right to an attorney. Their children were basically defenseless in front of a very tough judge. I think the big question raised by Kids for Cash is one of who is the real villain? Is it Ciavarella? Or is he just the scapegoat for a society that has become scared of its own children?