The “kids for cash” scandal came to public notice in 2009, when Pennsylvania judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan were accused of accepting kickbacks from a privately run juvenile detention facility in exchange for providing them with inmates. In 2011, the judges were found guilty of various charges (but, as should be noted, not the most serious graft charges). Ciavarella was sentenced to 28 years in prison, while Conahan was given 17. This new documentary, directed by established producer Robert May, posits that given the extent of the judges’ crimes and the profound effect it had on the lives of these juveniles who committed trivial offenses, they got off relatively easy. Though the filmmaking is faulty at times, it’s hard to disagree with the thesis of this powerful film that tells a modern-day story of corruption and abuse of power.
The main flaw with May’s technique is his reliance on talking-head interviews that are intercut with sometimes-ridiculous b-roll footage. It is certainly difficult to employ anything other than interviews to tell this story, as the most of the events were not filmed as they took place. But the weird and clearly staged shots of children’s drawings hanging in some sort of eerie attic and attorneys pinning pictures of the major players onto a wall like they were on an episode of Law and Order is silly and distracting. The story itself is so powerful and the victims and participants so engaging that this poorly imitated Errol Morris style footage is hardly needed.
Amazingly, and presumably against the advice of their lawyers, Ciavarella and Conahan participated in the making of the documentary while their case was proceeding. Ciavarella, in particular, adamantly denies any wrongdoing – to the extent that his plea agreement was thrown out by the presiding judge. Whether he’s lying to the camera, or to himself, or both, is unclear, and he was in fact found innocent of several of the main counts. But it’s hard to take him seriously, especially after the emotionally wrenching testimony that the children and their parents relay to the camera. They seem to have been constantly manipulated and taken advantage of by someone who is supposed to have justice and fairness in mind, from having them sign their right to an attorney away to sentencing a child to several years in a facility for creating a fake MySpace page about her principal.
And not all of them are around to tell their stories—one boy ended up committing suicide, seemingly thrown into a spiral of depression and aggression after his stint in a detention facility. May’s cameras capture the scene as his mother tearfully confronts Ciavarella when he appears outside the courthouse after his conviction.
Its small filmmaking flaws aside, the story of Kids For Cash is a powerful and important one, as we seem to find examples of this type of abuse of power over and over again in America, especially when it comes to less affluent communities.
Director: Robert May
Release Date: Feb. 7, 2014