“Kids for Cash” (2014)
Judge Mark Ciavarella was a young rising judge who ran on a ticket of treating juveniles as adults. He won a 10 year judgeship in the Pennsylvania county of Luzerne Country. After the Columbine High School Massacre, many school districts made it their priority to guarantee the safety of their school children. They accomplished this by creating a zero-tolerance policy, which played directly into Judge Ciavarella’s policies.
Judge Ciavarella was praised for his “tough love” approach, with schools, news organizations and law enforcement officials giving him accolades and recognition for cleaning up the schools and making them safer.
The film shows the heavy consequences of Judge Ciavarella’s policies as children as young as 12 or 13 years old were sentenced to a privately run juvenile facilities for extended lengths of time for minor offences such as creating a fake Myspace page for a school official, trespassing in a vacant building and shoplifting several DVD’s from a store. The Judge gave stiff sentences of years at a time to cases that in other counties would have probably been met with three-day suspensions. Over half the children that came before Judge Ciavarella’s court had their right to counsel waived by their parents (most thinking the trial/sentencing would be light).
The film highlights a number of children whose lives were radically changed by having to serve the long sentences that Ciavarella gave out. The parents in the film, all say that their children did have problems, but they, nor their children, knew how serious the charges were or how stiff the sentences that they faced. Many of the parents who waived their children’s rights (which was with a form that was conveniently given to them right outside the courtroom) were urged by law enforcement officials, to waive those rights because “It was the right thing to do” or because “It’s for the good of the children.”
In the film, we discover that the process for convicting and sentencing the youths by Judge Ciavarella was an extremely efficient. Judge Ciavarella visited each middle and high school in the county, giving talks to the students about the consequences of appearing before him. When a child was first brought into his courtroom, the first thing he would ask them, “Do you remember that I told you I would put you away if you ever came before me in court?”
What we discover through the film that Judge Ciavarella and a fellow judge Michael Conahan profited from closing of a county juvenile detention center and the construction of a pricey, private facility. Both men took kickbacks that totaled over 2 million dollars, kickbacks that certainly led to the creation of the new private dentition facility but also probably led to the lengthy sentences that Ciavarella gave out. The longer the sentences, the more money the facility was guaranteed to make.
The film does a great job of setting up the story, using both broadcast and print stories to give us the judges’ background the Federal government charged with money-laundering and tax evasion. Incredibly, throughout the film, both judges are interviewed by the filmmakers as their story develops through the legal process. As the film progresses, in each interview, both men start admitting to more and more.
In-depth interviews with a local newspaper reporter who covered the case gives us detailed background on not only how Ciavarella functioned in his courtroom but also the extensive ties that he had to the people who constructed and ran the private juvenile facility.
The film brings up many interesting topics including how high the cost of imprisoning these youths is versus the much cheaper enterprise of continuing their education. It also highlights the lasting, damaging effects of imprisoning children during a time where they are discovering their place in the world.
I would have liked the film to have had a more emotional impact on the viewers of this film. Only near the end of the film do you get the grief and burden that these tough sentences placed on the families and their children who went to jail. I think the film spent a little too much time on the court procedures and not enough time on what happened to the children in the juvenile facilities that they were sentenced to. Very few of the children interviewed talk in detail about their time away. We would have developed a more emotional tie to them if we had known more about their experiences.
Overall, it’s still a fascinating film that makes the viewer decide if the judges were truly giving long sentences to youths because they felt their “zero-tolerance” policies were the best for the children, or they were greedy men who took advantage of a system to make money off their communities children. It brings up many questions about how we treat children in the court systems, questions that we need to find answers to very quickly. My Rating: Bargain Matinee
My movie rating system from Best to Worst: 1). I Would Pay to See it Again 2). Full Price 3). Bargain Matinee 4). Cable 5). You Would Have to Pay Me to See it Again
The film is currently playing in Atlanta at AMC Phipps Plaza 14 Theatres