‘Kids for Cash’: The Scandal is Built In

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

“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.

RATING 8 / 10