I’m going to put this bluntly – this film pissed me off, made me incredibly angry. I don’t know how it couldn’t. This isn’t a reaction to the technical merits of the film, which are quite well presented, nor is it the narrative focus itself. This is a story that needed to be told. The fact that what happened in this movie happened at all is what angers me. The abuse of power that is so prevalent in the world today – taking advantage of others so that a select group of already well-off people can get more – turns my stomach. Robert May‘s Kids for Cash details one of these scenarios and it is heartbreaking.
What May captures in Kids for Cash is the story of the two judges in Luzerne County Pennsylvania, Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan. What makes these two men so despicable is that they used their power as judges to cut off funds from a state run juvenile detention facility, help raise money to build a for-profit facility to take its place and keep that facility flush with juvenile offenders…all for kickback money. $2.6 million. Ciavarella already had a reputation as a judge with zero tolerance for juvenile offenders, especially in the wake of the Columbine massacre in 1999. Kids, if perceived as any sort of problem, were whisked away from their parents and incarcerated because that’s what Ciavarella thought was in their best interest.
He had one of the highest detain rates of any judge in the state of Pennsylvania, if not the highest. How was he able to get kids as young as 11- and 12-years old sent up the river for the rest of their adolescent lives? Getting them to waive their constitutional right to an attorney. Then in usually less than three minutes of being in the courtroom without a lawyer, the kids were separated from their parents and formally entered into the juvenile system, many never to get out until they were 18 or older. Ciavarella sentenced over 3,000 kids to some sort of detention during his two terms as a judge. But it was this hubris that he exuded that led to his downfall.
A student named Hillary Transue was brought into his court for making terroristic threats for creating a satirical MySpace page about her vice principal. When she unknowingly waived the right to her attorney and was sentenced her mother contacted the advocates at the Juvenile Law Center who began to look into Ciavarella‘s record and that’s when the layers of the onion began to peel away. His connection to Michael Conahan and a local developer tied to the building and financing of the new juvenile facility became apparent. Obviously a red flag was sent up and the FBI got involved. From there, the dominoes fell and it was just a matter of time before the two judges would see the opposite side of the bench that they ruled with iron fists during their tenures.
I want to congratulate Robert May and the producers of this film for doing a great job of unraveling an incredibly complex story. They gave equal balance to both sides with cooperation of several of the kids who were sentenced under Ciavarella‘s tenure and their families as well as both Ciavarella and Conahan even though every time they spoke I had to hold back my fury and refrain from shouting at the screen. It’s absolutely crushing to hear the tales of these five children and their families about how they were torn apart, about how their lives have been ruined, some suffering from PTSD, others who couldn’t find a way out of their personal hell other than suicide. And it was the greed of these two judges and their cohorts that changed the lives of these young people, whose well-being they were charged with protecting. This is the most basic betrayal that anyone in any community can enact. This film brings not only puts the judicial system under the microscope but also the for-profit prison system, where it gets clearer and clearer that there is an obvious conflict of interest between the two. People should not make money off of others being put into jail. To think otherwise makes me question the sanity of those who believe this is a good idea.
There are a few telling statistics listed at the end of this film that puts how we treat our youth here in the US with regards to incarceration. Have a look at them and I doubt they’ll make you feel any less nauseated than I did when I watched the film:
– Two million children are arrested EVERY YEAR in the US, 95% for non-violent crimes
– The US spends $10,500 per child on education each year, but $88,000 on each incarcerated child.
– 66% of children who have been incarcerated never return to school.
– The US incarcerates almost 5 times as many children as any other country in the world.
Something has to change. These numbers are unacceptable and I truly hope this film helps opens the eyes of people enough to help make that change possible so that our children do not have to live in fear of incarceration by people like Ciavarella and Conahan, who use them as pawns in a game to get themselves more wealth. My heart goes out to the families portrayed in this film. As a father of two young men myself, it pains me to think that through some stroke of bad luck that they could meet a similar fate as the 2,480 children who were wrongly incarcerated at the hands of these clowns so that they could make some extra money when they didn’t need it to begin with. The damage done is often irreversible and it is unconscionable to allow it to happen any further.
This film is available On Demand on all major platforms and will be released on DVD December 2. I truly hope this film finds its audience and those who see it are as appalled as I have been and make change happen.