By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — A documentary that plays like a thriller, Kids For Cash is an account of perhaps the worst juvenile justice system scandal ever perpetrated, one involving greedy judges jailing children for money.
Few fictional narratives affect moviegoers as viscerally or impactfully as this doc does.
The title, a prototypical tabloid headline, is the nickname or label for the juvenile court scandal involving judicial kickbacks at the Luzerne County (Pa.) Court of Common Pleas that unfolded in 2008 in Wilkes-Barre, involving two outrageously corrupt Pennsylvania judges eventually sentenced to prison.
The money the judges received was from Robert Mericle, the developer of a privately owned juvenile detention center to which several thousand -– yep, several thousand — children were sentenced.
The principal subject is Luzerne County’s president judge, Mark A. Ciavarella, who championed the “zero tolerance” approach, which to some might have seemed timely and appropriate in the paranoic wake of the Columbine tragedy.
Robert May, a producer and resident of Luzerne County debuting as a director, profiles several youths who ended up in Ciavarella’s courtroom for minor offenses, such as arguing or fighting, and were not represented by lawyers during their trials.
Their handling in many cases flat-out ruined their lives, landing them lengthy stretches of imprisonment.
May’s structural strategy — and it’s an effective one — is to tell the story from the victims’ point of view as well as the villains’ point-of-view, and let us make up our own minds. Sort of.
Ciavarella and former president judge/senior judge Michael Conahan (neither of whom, rather surprisingly, declined to be interviewed for the film) were charged with various financial crimes including racketeering and accepting nearly $3 million in “finder’s fees” — more accurately described as bribes.
The most emotionally devastating of these interviews, with the mother of a boy who committed suicide, is absolutely heartbreaking.
Director May isn’t afraid to be shocking -– and perhaps he occasionally overdoes it, to the detriment of his otherwise persuasive argument -– but his criticism of the juvenile justice system and the privatization of prisons seems very much on the money, as it were.
So we’ll imprison 3 stars out of 4 for this riveting, passionate, and tragic documentary. Enlightening and enraging in about equal measure, Kids For Cash has the power to stir and horrify.