Children of the Court, by David Bax
Robert May’s Kids for Cash opens with a commendable amount of restraint for a documentary that is going to set your heart and your morals on fire with rage. Were it up to me to relay this story of devastating injustice, I’d be screaming and frothing from the jump. But May begins quietly, with the sound of young people and their parents telling the tales of the minor infractions that put them in juvenile detention while the camera explores a crude model of a small town built from construction paper.
Kids for Cash details the scandal in which a Pennsylvania judge sentenced astronomically large numbers of children to be locked up for such “crimes” as getting into a schoolyard fight or mouthing off to an adult neighbor. The judge, Mark Ciavarella, also received more than $2,000,000 from the backers of the privately owned juvenile detention center where most of the children were sent. These kids and their parents were, in many cases, deceived into waiving their right to an attorney. Currently, Ciavarella is in prison for his actions. The vengeful part of me wants to say he’s where he belongs but, to its great credit, Kids for Cash – not content merely to tell this emotional story – goes on to question what jailing someone means, what it does to them and their families, and why exactly we do it to anyone.
First, though, the vitriol. It’s galling and potentially galvanizing to learn that these third world kangaroo courts could be allowed to exist within a system with supposed checks and balances. Even after struggling with the question of how it could have happened logistically, there remains the more vexing matter of how it could have happened morally. It is literally unconscionable to me that this man could be either ignorant or insouciant enough to ruin young people’s lives forever in the span of a 60 to 90 second “hearing.” Even if, as Ciaveralla claims, he was paid as a finder’s fee for getting the center built and not as an incentive to keep it occupied, the man’s actions were monstrous. Some explanation may exist in the hints of a narcissistic psychosis. He ruins his initial plea deal because he can’t keep his mouth shut in front of reporters. Then he agrees to be interviewed at length for this film without notifying his attorney. Both at least establish a continuity of bad judgment, to put it mildly. But I suppose, given that this is a man who seized on post-Columbine panic to pump even more souls into an already flawed juvenile justice system, he’d have to have something wrong with his brain just to get to sleep at night.
One of the points most repeated by some of May’s talking heads is that it is foolhardy to treat juvenile misbehavior the same as we would the transgressions of adults. Kids have less understanding of consequences so deterrents largely fail. In addition, children are particularly impressionable so the problem of institutionalization furthering removing them from civil society instead of improving their relationship with it – already a major flaw in the adult prison system – is exacerbated. Add to that the inconceivable overreaction inherent in their sentences in these cases and you’ve got a kid who’s been fundamentally altered for the worse. May serves his themes well by displaying both “good” kids and kids who had an admitted history of troubles before coming to Ciavarella’s court to make his case that, even if they were all rotten, they didn’t deserve what happened to them. Even allowing for further auteurist manipulation, we still can’t deny the facts. We know what they did and we know how much time they served. It’s plainly outrageous.
But now I’m slipping back into anger. Returning to my (even-headed, in no way furious) points, another thing that is plain to see is where these young people are now – the ones that are still alive, at least. What point does incarceration serve other to rehabilitate? If the point is merely punishment, you may as well execute all these kids for as much good as you’re doing for society when you put them in prison. Rehabilitation is demonstrably not achieved. In the best possible cases, these people survived without getting too screwed up by the experience and managed to walk away without post-traumatic stress disorder. Some weren’t so lucky.
Given Ciavarella’s age, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever get a sense of how prison will have changed him because he likely won’t outlive his sentence. I don’t say this to gloat because, if Kids for Cash, preaches anything, it’s that incarceration is good for exactly nobody. Apart from the age difference, though, there are a number of similarities between his fate and the fates he doled out to thousands of children. For one, his sentence is far longer than the expected term for his crimes, likely due to the public outrage the scandal sparked. A deeper instance of karmic reflection comes near the end when Ciavarella laments that we won’t be present in the childhoods of his grandchildren. He spent years removing children from their families but does he understand now? Does he think what he does was wrong? Will any of us learn anything from this story and do anything about it other than shake our heads? I hope so.