Revisiting a real Pennsylvania travesty

Former judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr., now in federal prison, discusses his crimes in the film.

Kids for Extra Judicial Compensation just doesn't have the same ring.

Robert May's powerful and chilling documentary, Kids for Cash, traces the epic misdeeds of a pair of judges in Luzerne County that resulted in almost 3,000 convictions - juveniles sent to detention centers in handcuffs and shackles, often for years, for committing what one disbelieving observer would later term "typical adolescent misbehavior."

What was in it for Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. and Michael T. Conahan, the Wilkes-Barre judges at the heart of the scandal? Well, it was that "extra judicial compensation" - $2.6 million in what the judges termed a "finder's fee," for getting a privately owned juvenile detention center up and running in the county. The fact that a sizable percentage of the youths who came before Ciavarella between 2000 and 2007 were sent to the center he and Conahan helped build seemed like a quid pro quo. When the revelations exploded in January 2009, the media pegged it the "Kids for Cash" affair.

The story May tells - through interviews with kids and their families, with reporters covering the case, with locals at a busy Luzerne County diner, and, significantly, with Ciavarella and Conahan themselves - is more complicated. But no less alarming.

May, a filmmaker who lives in Luzerne County and who has produced fiction and nonfiction features including The Station Agent and The War Tapes, examines the assembly-line process by which Ciavarella heard and decided his cases, and the "zero tolerance" philosophy behind it. In the wake of the Columbine High School killings, educators, administrators, law enforcement, and judiciary across the country - not to mention the public at large - endorsed a tougher stand against adolescent transgressors.

Before the scandal broke, Ciavarella was backed by many in his community, winning reelection, making speaking appearances, cheered on by passersby.

The heroes of Kids for Cash are a pair of Philadelphia lawyers, Marsha Levick and Robert Schwartz, who run the Juvenile Law Center, a not-for-profit advocacy group. When the mother of a 14-year-old girl sentenced by Ciavarella contacted them, red flags started popping up like groundhogs. The attorneys began their investigation - one that would have seismic consequences.

Kids for Cash is no-nonsense, no-stone-unturned filmmaking. Make your own judgments about Conahan and Ciavarella, who are now both in federal prisons. Ciavarella's on-camera sit-down is particularly charged. His regret is palpable. His justifications, rationalizations, compartmentalizations, excuses . . . fascinating.

Kids for Cash is ultimately more than an indictment of two judges, more than a Pennsylvania scandal laid bare. The real travesty, the filmmakers say, is the nation's juvenile justice system itself. The statistics that May runs off as the film closes are daunting.

The solutions needed to fix a broken system even more so.





Kids for Cash

Directed by Robert May. Distributed by Paladin.

Running time: 1 hours, 44 minutes.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (for some thematic material and language).