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Few documentaries induce as much visceral outrage as Kids for Cash, Robert May’s account of the eponymous juvenile court scandal that rocked the nation when it came to light several years ago. Concerning two judges who were sentenced to prison for accepting kickbacks from the developer of a private juvenile detention center to which over 3,000 children were sentenced to draconian prison terms, this riveting documentary is a real-life thriller that rivals the most dramatic fiction in terms of emotional impact. Having recently received its world premiere at the Doc NYC festival, Kids for Cash is poised to garner significant attention upon its theatrical release early next year.
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The film’s principal subject is Mark A. Ciavarella, who in 1996 was elected to a ten-year term as a juvenile court judge in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. His zero tolerance approach to incarcerating juveniles appealed to voters in the wake of the Columbine tragedy, but he soon went far beyond his campaign promises.
The film profiles several of the young people who had the misfortune of landing in his courtroom for such offenses as a participating in a schoolyard brawl, possessing a stolen scooter, entering into a verbal altercation with a student’s mother and posting a MySpace page satirizing a vice-principal. All of them were imprisoned for years, thanks to such tactics as persuading their gullible parents that there was no need for legal representation.
But it was when it was revealed that Ciavarella and his fellow judge Michael Conahan had accepted a multi-million dollar “finder’s fee” from the prison’s developer that the excrement truly hit the fan. Charged with a variety of financial crimes, the pair accepted a plea agreement sentencing them to 87 months. It was nullified when Ciavarella spoke to the press, and the ensuing trial resulted in much lengthier jail terms for such crimes as racketeering, which they are still serving.
The film includes harrowing interviews with the teenagers whose lives were disrupted and virtually ruined by their brutal experiences with the legal system. The most heartbreaking example is Sandy Fonzo, whose young son committed suicide shortly after being released. Her bitterly angry confrontation with Ciavarella on the steps of a courthouse, captured by the news media, is the film’s emotional focal point.
Surprisingly, both judges agreed to be interviewed for the film, with neither coming across as remotely sympathetic. Both admit to ethical lapses and such crimes as not reporting the illicit income to authorities, while Ciavarella vociferously denies the charge that he sent kids to prison in exchange for kickbacks while crying crocodile tears about the prospect of being separated from his family.
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It’s a tragic, horrific, and nearly unbelievable tale that is rendered here for maximum emotional impact. Ciavarella’s single-minded approach towards sentencing—“You could have had F. Lee Bailey there and the kids would still have gone away,” says a public defender—is enough to make anyone seethe about the injustice.
Fortunately, there are some heroes in the story, including an intrepid investigative reporter who covered the story for a local newspaper and the leaders of the Juvenile Law Center, who got involved in the case at the instigation of an irate parent.
Venue: Doc NYC (SenArt Films Releasing)
Director: Robert May
Producers: Lauren Timmons, Robert May
Executive producer: John Weekley
Directors of photography: Jay Gillespie, Eddie Marritz
Editor: Poppy Das
Production designer: John Paino
Composer: Michael Brook
Not rated, 104 min.
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