Photo: SenArt Films
Release Date: November 17th, 2013
Directed by: Robert May
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and strong language
Kids for Cash is a documentary about the eponymous scandal in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania that involved judges Mark Ciavanella and Michael Conahan. The two were accused of taking kickbacks (to the tune of $2.16 million) to send teenagers to a privately run juvenile detention facility that they had a business interest in. All told, about 3,000 kids were adjudicated as delinquents, found guilty, and sentenced to years-long sentences for sometimes trivial offenses. One of the teenagers in the movie was sent to juvenile detention for creating a MySpace page that made fun of a vice principal. Another was caught at a party where underage drinking was happening, and an officer planted drug paraphernalia in his vehicle so he could be arrested. In each case, the teen’s parents waived their right to legal counsel and were sentenced in a matter of minutes.
The documentary uses the “talking head” approach and it does so to great effect; you get to meet several families who were affected by the scandal, as well as others involved in the case (notably, the co-founders of the Juvenile Justice Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania). Mark Ciavarella, former President judge and juvenile judge, had once been lauded for his “Zero Tolerance” policy post-Columbine. However, studies have shown that children are not “little adults” and should not be treated as such when it comes to punishment. “Zero Tolerance” has by and large been a failure in the United States, as well, since juvenile incarceration rates continue to increase (they have been up 165% since 1990).
Both the accused, Chiavarella and Monahan, are allowed to tell their sides of the story, instead of just being demonised in vignettes and soundbites, as some filmmakers are wont to do *cough Michael Moore COUGH* Whether they deserved what happens in the end, I will leave for the viewer to decide. I will say that watching this film was an extremely emotional, wrenching experience. Many people are not aware of how the juvenile justice system works in the United States, and just how difficult it is to get out of it once one is in. This film is a must watch for every parent.
VERDICT: See. Educate yourself.