Deeply shocking and continually surprising, “Kids for Cash” examines the scandal surrounding a Pennsylvania judge’s draconian imprisonment of kids for minor hijinks, in exchange for kickbacks from a juvenile detention center. Helmer Robert May sometimes lessens the impact of his points through overemphasis; a tighter edit of this 104-minute docu might boost its dramatic momentum and widen its appeal. Still, the film represents a scathing critique of America’s juvenile justice system, the privatization of penal institutions, and the whole notion of “zero tolerance.” Skedded for a February 2014 release, “Kids” should inspire audience outrage and build positive buzz.
As May’s docu makes clear though testimonials and newspaper headlines, juvenile court judge Mark Ciavarella was once highly respected by the Pennsylvania community he served. In the widespread paranoia that followed the Columbine shootings, his hugely disproportionate sentencing — five or six years in lockup for a small-scale offenses that normally would have merited visits to the principal and/or three-day suspensions — was seen as a positive step toward making schools safer. Ciavarella is shown warning students what they can expect if they deviate even slightly from the straight and narrow, any disregard of this warning providing sufficient reason for immediate incarceration.
John Paino’s production design somewhat artificially revs up the pathos with atmospheric cutaways to low-lit, stick-and-paper figures of children and homemade dollhouses against a gloomy backdrop. Lined-up dossiers and stacks of portfolios illustrate segments of voiceover, while reams of typewritten data recount the manifold inconsistencies and dubious practices visited upon those who wound up in Ciavarella’s court.
In-depth interviews with articulate young men and women — who, at age 12 or 13, were torn from parents and friends and locked away for years — unleash tales of depression, post-traumatic stress and stolen childhoods. They received extended jail time as punishment for such “crimes” as writing a satirical MySpace page, unknowingly buying a stolen scooter, or briefly fighting in the schoolyard. Parents are still trying to come to terms with their guilt over having trusted the authorities and not having fought harder to save their offspring from bald injustice. In the film’s most electrifying moment, one mother, whose son committed suicide soon after leaving prison, confronts Ciavarella outside the courtroom and castigates him as a heartless murderer.
Dismayingly, it is only when Ciavarella’s punitive sentencing is linked to kickbacks that the community turns against him; his manifest cruelty is apparently acceptable practice when it’s merely part of “The War on Kids,” to cite Cevin Soling’s 2009 documentary about zero tolerance.
Frequently sampling news clips, May follows the story as Ciavarella and fellow judge Michael Conahan are indicted on money-laundering charges, having profited from the closure of the rundown state juvenile detention center and the construction of a private facility. (Astoundingly, both judges agreed to be extensively interviewed for the documentary, their self-justifications only damning them further.) The film charts the trial in exhaustive detail, exposing in the process the disastrous effect of the privatization of penal institutions and the corresponding growth of a profit-making industry that seeks to solve all social problems through imprisonment.
May opens his film with the statement that 193 countries ratified the United Nations’ “Convention on the Rights of the Child.” Only three countries refused to sign: Somalia, South Sudan and the U.S. “Kids for Cash” paints a somber picture of the mindset that led to this refusal and its tragic consequences.