It's easy to imagine why the director of a sociopolitical "issue" documentary might go to great lengths to avoid the cliches of the form. Provide historical context, interview some experts and present some timely examples of the social ill in question and you've surely done your job — but you've also made a film we've seen before. Director Robert May's Kids For Cash examines the horrifying case of two judges in Northeastern Pennsylvania who sent more than 3,000 kids into long-term, prison-like detention for mostly minor infractions over a period of more than 10 years. The judges also accepted more than $2.2 million as a "finder's fee" from the developer of a new for-profit juvenile detention center in their county. May avoids the familiar formula for films of this type. By focusing too closely on the particulars of this case, the director also misses the chance to illuminate the larger problems presented by our broken American juvenile justice system. Even so, the details of the case are so compelling that May manages to deliver a film everyone should see.
The notorious "kids for cash" case was made possible by a post-Columbine zeitgeist in which zero-tolerance policies for bad behavior in schools allowed judges like Pennsylvania's Mark Ciavarella to get elected simply by expressing them forcefully in public. There's no shortage of research showing that tearing normal kids from their families and sending them to juvenile prison only manufactures hardened criminals. But that didn't stop Ciavarella from sending 12- and 13-year-old kids upriver for infractions like one girl's creation of a satirical MySpace page for her vice principal, or a boy's acceptance of a used motor scooter from his parents that turned out to be stolen. Parents were pressured not to hire lawyers and later deceived into signing away their constitutional rights to legal representation. Brief hearings in which shocked parents saw their innocent kids shackled and taken away were closed to the public, ostensibly to protect the children.
The first half of Kids For Cash mostly examines the lives of families torn apart by needless incarceration, and it can be difficult to watch. But May makes the mistake of dwelling on individual cases long after we understand the families' unspeakable pain, and the result sometimes seems maudlin and manipulative. The second half focuses on Ciavarella and his fellow judge and close friend Michael Conahan, a successful businessman who arranged the financing and construction of the juvenile detention facility and shared the spoils with Ciavarella. May convinced the judges to sit for interviews so secret even their lawyers didn't know about them. The judges also agreed to keep their participation in the film secret from each other as they faced their own reckonings in court. This extraordinary access mostly allows both judges to explain why they still don't think they did much wrong.
It's nothing short of amazing to see Ciavarella cry on camera for his own ruined career and not for the lives he helped destroy. His self-deception at least points us toward the more complex and troubling issues suggested by a community that was complicit in his crimes by remaining largely silent. The public policies that came to light in Pennsylvania remain very much in place across the country. Hopefully Kids For Cash will begin a widespread public discourse that can lead to substantive change.
A panel discussion on the issues raised by Kids For Cash takes place at 4 p.m. Saturday, March 8 at Zeitgeist. Participants include filmmaker Robert May, Charles Balsavage (who was incarcerated by Ciavarella as a child) and local attorneys and juvenile justice activists.