Home Video Hovel: Kids for Cash, by Sarah Brinks
As the voice of a generation Whitney Houston sang in 1985, “I believe the children are our future.” In all seriousness though, children are the proverbial eggs we have in our basket and they should be treated as such. Kids for Cash is a documentary about a scandal in a small county in Pennsylvania involving a juvenile court judge who was accused of accepting money for sending kids to a local detention facility.
The film plays out a bit like a slow paced John Grisham novel. Over 3,000 kids were found guilty in Judge Ciavarella’s court for minor crimes and sent to a detention facility. The parents of some of these kids reached out to the Juvenile Law Council who became advocates for those kids. The federal government had also taken notice of the unusual amount of kids who were incarcerated and the similarities of their stories. During their investigation it was uncovered that Judge Ciavarella and another Judge Conahan had been given money for the role they had played in getting the new detention center built in Luzerne County. In 2009 the scandal was picked up by the national press and the “kids for cash” story was an overnight sensation. Both the judges were eventually tried and sentenced to serve time in prison, 17 years for Ciavarella and 28 for Conahan. Ciavarella is the main focus of the film, as he is the judge that oversaw the trials and the sentencing of the kids.
Kids for Cash is in a lot of ways the definition of a well-balanced documentary. The director/producer Robert May shows many, many sides of the story and manages to not pick a side for the most part. He lets the children who were incarcerated and their families, the members of the Juvenile Law Council, FBI agents, local politicians, members of the community, and the accused judges themselves tell their stories. The shocking stories of kids who were sentenced to years in a juvenile correction facility for first time offenses that should at most have earned them community service are all eerily similar. The community, the government, and the press all painted a very one sided view of the two judges; Ciavarella in particular. This was the point in the film (one year before the trial) that Ciavarella broke his silence and agreed to speak to the documentary crew and tell his story. He maintained throughout the entirety of the film and his trial that he was only guilty of accepting “kickback” money for the juvenile facility project, which he claims he thought was legal. He continues to deny that he ever put a child in prison for money. The other judge Conahan also admits to financial fraud and other such crimes. He was essentially the brain-trust behind the whole project and laundered money, which is why he got the nearly thirty year sentence.
May used a variety of techniques to tell the story of Kids for Cash. The majority of the film is “talking head” interviews, but he also uses news footage, court records, and case files to tell the story. One aspect that I liked about the film was that while the majority of the film is focused on the actual “kids for cash” case many of the interviews are educational about the US juvenile corrections system. The members of Juvenile Law Council in particular speak to the effects that these placements have on kids, how difficult it is to get out of the system once they are in, and why programs like “zero tolerance” are failing children.
The only time the film feels purposely manipulative is at the very end. A series of on screen cards are displayed as the Scala and Kolancy version of “Creep” (made famous by the Social Network trailer) plays. You learn what happened to the kids interviewed, the judges eventual sentences, some facts about the US juvenile corrections system, and a thank you to the films contributors, including the former judges. It was a little disappointing after the film had managed to maintain such an even hand up until then. Kids for Cash is still a good documentary, though, bringing a multifaceted view to a difficult subject.