'Kids for Cash': The Scandal is Built In

The Juvenile Justice System remains wrong in its conception of zero tolerance. Lives are being destroyed.

Kids for Cash

Director: Robert May
Cast: Mark Ciavarella Jr., Michael Conahan, Marsha Levick, Robert Schwartz, Charlie Balasavage, Justin Bodnar, Hillary Transue
Rated: PG-13
Studio: SenArt Films
Year: 2013
US date: 2014-02-28 (Limited release)

"I wanted these kids to think that I was the biggest SOB that ever lived. I wanted them to be scared out of their minds when they had to deal with me, because I was hoping, because of that, that they would never again put themselves in a position again where they had to come back and deal with me." It's entirely possible that these were Judge Mark Ciavarella Jr.'s thoughts when he was sending children to juvenile detention centers in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania during the 2000s. It's also possible that the story he tells himself is just that, the story he tells himself.

That he's also telling this story for the documentary Kids for Cash is at least one consequence of the legal case brought against Ciavarella. "I have not told my attorney I've agreed to do this documentary," he says at one point, which might make you wonder what he's telling whom and when. Ciavarella appears in Robert May's documentary alongside any number of people who see his story differently, including fellow judge Mike Conahan, with whom he was charged in federal court with 39 counts -- for instance, fraud money laundering, federal tax violations, and extortion -- stemming from their taking some $2.6 million in kickbacks from the for-profit detention centers' developer, Robert Mericle, in return for providing detainees, children sentenced to months and years for infractions like writing graffiti, fighting on a school playground or putting up a MySpace page that mocked a vice principal.

Ciavarella insists that his harsh sentences were well intended. "Family has an awful lot to do with why and how a kid gets in the system," he says, "People don't know how to be parents." And so, in the wake of "Columbine," a word used more than once by interviewees here, he hoped to instill a sense of responsibility in children and pursue a policy of "zero tolerance." But that kind of thinking, point out Marsha Levick and Robert Schwartz of the Juvenile Law Center, is inherently flawed, first, because children's brains aren't fully formed, and so they're not yet able to comprehend such consequences or be deterred by such policy, and second, because the "zero" created so arbitrarily, out of fear and, it appears, out of greed, is patently illogical. The punishment doesn't come near to fitting the crimes and the lessons learned by detainees tend, unsurprisingly, to be detrimental.

This much is clear in the film's interviews with several of the kids Ciavarella "sent away," as well as their parents. Introduced via close-p shots of their files, revealing dates and their young ages, with frankly alarming photos indicating the physical changes they've undergone during years of incarceration. Justin Bodnar, for example, whose use of profanity at a bus stop in front of a fellow 12-year-old's mother led to his being sentenced for making "terroristic threats." In his cell, Justin says now, he realized, "I'm now one of those people you see in the movies, I woke up with cockroaches and criminals." Fifteen-year-old Charlie Balasavage, discovered to be riding a motorbike he didn't know was stolen, ended up spending five years in detention. He reads from a poem he wrote, "Attitude of Love": "Life presents us with challenges that we must overcome and sometimes they leave us numb." Again and again, the kids remember traumas founded in a sense of helplessness and confusion, a world that no longer made sense. They signed waivers to counsel they didn't understand, and, after just a minute or so in the courtroom, the children found themselves shackled and led away from their horrified, weeping parents.

That the film showcases the students after these experiences indicates the broader stakes of this story, from the judge's self-delusions to the parents' frustrations to the kids' ongoing struggles. Beyond all this, however, the film also suggests how such a scandal might come to pass, its relationship to the seemingly legitimate justice system, which is in practice shaped by corporate and political incentives, alternately moved by media hysteria or resistant to actual investigation, and devoted to order at the cost of morality. Kids for Cash makes clear these larger questions, still unresolved even if these particular criminals are punished (Ciavarella was sentenced to 28 years).

These questions are visible in the children, now older, still grappling with what's happened to them. Amanda Lorrah yet suffers ongoing anxiety "around people," 22-year-old Justin Bodnar still hasn't found a way to go to music school, despite his gifts and ambitions. As Hillary Transue puts it, the system was and remains wrong in its conception, based on a set of stories adults tell themselves. "Nobody listened because we were just kids," she says. Now she's working with kids who need to be heard.






The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".


Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".


Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.