Judge Mark Ciavarella (bottom left) is confronted by Sandy Fonzo outside a courthouse in the documentary "Kids for Cash." Credit: Bill Tarutis/SenArt Films/ Kids For Cash Movie Judge Mark Ciavarella (bottom left) is confronted by Sandy Fonzo outside a courthouse in the documentary "Kids for Cash."
Credit: Bill Tarutis/SenArt Films/ Kids For Cash Movie

'Kids for Cash'
Director: Robert May
Genre: Documentary
Rating: PG-13
3 (out of 5) Globes

For its first half hour, “Kids for Cash” seems like a "60 Minutes" type of documentary — one that chose an alarming subject but failed to find a novel way to present it. The topic is a case in Luzerne County, located in Northeastern Pennsylvania, that's well enough known that it's already been highlighted in Michael Moore's "Capitalism: A Love Story" (and been adapted into episodes of "Law and Order: SVU" and "The Good Wife"). In a relatively short amount of time, 3,000 kids were plucked from school and sent to juvenile detention centers.

If that number seems high, then know that most of them were for non-violent crimes, and even incredibly minor ones. (One kid spent years locked up for being caught with a dirt bike he was given without knowing it was stolen.) The judge, one Mark Ciavarella, was so adamant about scaring kids straight that he went overboard — or perhaps it was the millions of dollars the centers gave him that got him to kick up his numbers?

 

So far, so enraging. But a shocking thing happens thirty minutes in: Ciavarella himself enters the movie. (His voice is actually heard in the opening minutes, but he doesn’t show up proper till later.) It’s here that “Kids for Cash” becomes more than an outrage machine. For its first third, the film and its procession of victims — both kids and their parents, who watched as innocuous-seeming court dates ended with their children carted off in shackles — paint Ciavarella as a seething boogeyman, who put a price on youth's heads and slept on a pile of money.

And yet here he is, calmly talking to us, earnestly pleading for us to hear his case. His argument, which he maintains, is that the money he got was a mere “finder’s fee,” which he didn’t know was illegal. If this is true, then “Kids for Cash” is a tale of deep, debatably tragic irony. Ciavarella, who never listened to kids’ cases (and in many cases tried them without legal assistance) before sentencing them to draconian, often life-shattering sentences, had his life destroyed by those who puffed up a false charge. It's the comeuppance he deserved, and yet part of us —if only a small one — still feels for him.

Ciavarella is remorseful, but for the wrong thing. He wishes he never took the money. He shows no regret when it comes to his reckless, frequent sentencing — but even there, he was part of a larger problem. The “zero tolerance” trend of which he was an enthusiastic perpetrator emerged in the wake of the Columbine massacre. But it's a mere palliative, one that winds up more destructive than the thing that caused it. As “Kids for Cash”’s talking heads argue, the centers may “save” behaving students from bad eggs, but only by destroying them. Over half of those sent to centers never return to school, and in one case a kid went from on-the-edge to self-destructive, finally killing himself. The scariest thing about “Kids for Cash” isn’t so much the story as its portrayal of a hot mess where everyone believed they were in the right.

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