Tragic events can often spawn knee-jerk reactions made out of passion, but not logic. After the events of the Columbine school massacre, Pennsylvanian Judge Ciavarella took a tough stance on juveniles with the zero tolerance policy. Tensions were already pretty high during this era with overly-cautious schools handing out strict suspensions for something as simple as leaving a box-cutter in your car (this actually happened at my school). To put it bluntly, it sucked to be a student in the early 2000’s. But nobody would dispute that the kids who got the worst of this policy were those in Luzerne County in this painfully tragic documentary.
Under Ciavarella’s furious presence, over 3,000 students were sentenced to the juvenile detention center. These kids appeared before the judge with no lawyer and found themselves sentenced to the center within a few minutes. The offenses included everything from unknowingly purchasing stolen property to minor scuffles in the school hallways. Before the kids know it, they’re spending the remainder of their youth incarcerated for something that any other student in the country would only serve a detention or suspension. Just the thought of never being able to experience all the pleasures of growing up or completing school seems like an entirely different world. The director does his best to illustrate this with the accompanying imagery of paper dolls and houses representing lost innocence. It’s a little much, but it gets the job done.
For about the first half of the film, we see interviews with the grown up kids who finished their time in the correctional facility and their parents. They relay the bitter and brief courtroom battles in which they were essentially shouted down by the judge with fire and brimstone. The students describe their frustrations for the many wasted years in a dirty room with cockroaches as roommates. The parents sob and breakdown feeling so helpless to do anything for their children. Those that lost them completely to suicide grieve even worse.
That alone would seem to be enough for a documentary, but the second half goes one further by actually interviewing former judges Conahan and Ciavarella. Both were involved with the Kids For Cash scandal in which the chain of events that led to these 3,000 sentencing for some kickbacks, though Ciavarella denies being aware of this involvement. Ciavarella truly believed he was doing something right in a world gone mad and now he’s paying for it. He breaks down heavily in an interview realizing his grandchildren will remember him as scum. The interviews take place mere days before he goes to trial and then later on for his sentencing. The town’s people also voice their opinions on the man believing he’ll finally get a taste of his own medicine when they send him to prison.
It helps to see some humanity for Ciavarella’s side of the story in which him and his family deny knowing anything about this scam. That being said, the atrocity of the lives he’s ruined over the years never stops looming over his head. During a press swarm around Ciavarella on the courthouse steps, the mother of a deceased child screams and hollers at him for taking her son away because of his pigheaded judgement. She curses him in what I can only assume was the same volume of scorn as Ciavarella displayed in her son’s ruling. It isn’t long before she storms off in tears at not being able to do anything to ever see her son again.
Kids For Cash presents a dark portrait of how a post 9/11 society failed the American justice system for children. All the facts in this scandal are laid out on the table and makes you sick to your stomach that such verdicts would be passed down to these students, robbing them of their youth and education. The film ends with some shocking statistics about how many kids are imprisoned, how much it costs and what future they have after going through such an ordeal. Whether you believe Ciavarella’s ignorance or not, he admits that system has failed. He is now serving a prison sentence as well as Conahan. It may not seem like enough of a punishment for all the lives they’ve destroyed, but it’s one step towards believing that there is some justice in this world for the wicked.
Reviewed by Mark McPherson, CinemaParadiso.co.uk