I should start this review with a few notes of disclosure. I have some tangential relationships to the story charted in the documentary Kids For Cash. I have lived in Luzerne County for most of my adult life and for a good portion of the time that the scandal detailed here played out in the media. FilmBuffOnline was the first online film news site to report that the scandal was going to form at least a portion of Michael Moore’s documentary Capitalism: A Love Story. One of my best friends was a high school classmate of one of the teens interviewed for Moore’s documentary. I know the former Luzerne County Courthouse media relations officer whose voice you hear near the beginning of this film. When I freelanced at the Times Leader newspaper, I was acquainted with a couple of the staffers seen throughout the film. A friend of mine knows and had worked for this documentary’s director, Robert May, while his wife, a former local radio personality, has provided the voice for May’s production company’s voice mail. In Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, as probably within any community of a certain size, it is hard not to know multiple someones somehow related to anything going on in the community. It is that type of social ecosystem that you need to keep in mind when delving into the story of how two judges were accused of taking bribes that resulted in an unprecedented number of juveniles being incarcerated for oftentimes the minor-est of offenses.
After Mark Ciavarella was elected a judge in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania on a campaign of being tough on criminals, he was assigned to the county’s juvenile court, where he would routinely incarcerate youths in the county’s juvenile detention center for even the smallest infractions. But in the wake of the 1999 Columbine High School shooting massacre, zero-tolerance policies were all the rage and soon kids who did nothing more than get into a playground scuffle or making a satirical MySpace page mocking their school’s vice-principal soon found themselves ripped from their families and locked up for years. When parents started to look for help, the fact that Ciavarella had financial ties to the privately run juvenile detention center to which he was sentencing teens was uncovered, a fact that lit off a firestorm of criticism and a federal investigation.
Kids For Cash is an infuriating film. Not because it is poorly made or doesn’t tell its story well. It is precisely because it is well made and tells its story of corruption so well that it will leave viewers angry. That is when they aren’t heartbroken by its depictions of the lives shattered by Ciavarella’s cavalier disregard for any circumstances surrounding why juveniles were in front of his bench.
May comes to directing via producing, specifically the indie drama The Station Agent and Errol Morris’s Oscar-winning The Fog Of War and this debut is a strong one. He tell his story through a mixture of talking head interviews, newspaper headlines and local news footage. But the real meat of the movie comes from the stories told by a small number of former teenagers who went through the juvenile detention system and their families. Their stories are different but so sadly similar as they talk of depression, post-traumatic stress and their inability to regain their previous life. Theirs were not punishments to “teach them a lesson,” as Ciavarella would often claim.
Most impressively, May has gotten Ciavarella, against his lawyer’s wishes he notes, to come on camera and present his side of the story. But the former judge is not doing himself any favors here. There’s the tragic irony that while Ciavarella would ultimately plead guilty to “Theft of Honest Services” for not disclosing that “finder’s fee” from the builder for initiating the juvenile detention center project, he steadfastly refused to acknowledge that he stole years away from the youths he sent to that facility. He also seems oblivious to the hypocrisy of his admitting to taking the money so he could pay for his own children’s education so they could have a better future while he was destroying the futures of so many others. When he breaks down in tears towards the end of the film, distraught at what his grandchildren may hear about him in the future, it is hard to find any sympathy.
Kino Lorber’s DVD release presents the film in a rather bare-bones release, with only a trailer and sixteen minutes of additional interview footage.