A juvenile court judge ran on a platform of “zero tolerance”. Another judge closes the decrepit county juvenile facility and encourages the use of a new privately owned facility. They receive millions of dollars in “finder’s fees” that go unreported and are laundered through various companies owned by one of the judges. Kids are put into the system over minor infractions, often without legal representation. Kids for Cash reports on this scandal from Pennsylvania that got national attention.
Robert May, who directed the film, has produced some very good documentaries: Fog of War, The War Tapes, Stevie. When this scandal began coming to light in his own backyard (he lives in the area), he knew he had to tell the story. As he puts it in press notes, “Each day, we would pick up the local and national papers and read about what was happening right where I live. I was stunned to learn that these judges were accused of such heinous crimes involving children, especially since I probably voted for both of them!”
The film introduces us first to Judge Ciavarella. He was the main juvenile judge in the county. He went to schools to make sure students knew that he believed in zero tolerance for crime. He was celebrated in the community for his stance and the time he gave. Then we begin to meet some of the kids that came before him and their parents. When one of the parents began to look into the practices of the court, it eventually led to a federal investigation and the scandal grew.
May follows the scandal through talking with a local journalist who has followed the case and knows the people involved. It turns out that the “Kids for Cash” name the press gave to the scandal may be a bit sensationalistic. There may not be actual quid pro quo money for putting kids into the system. But appearances of wrongdoing are very strong, even if it is not the case that the judges were being bribed.
May also gives the judges their chance to tell the story their way. Judge Ciavarella agrees to be interviewed for the film without his attorney’s approval or knowledge. He just wants to set the record straight that he was always doing what he thought was the in the best interest for the community and the children. Judge Conahan also agreed to an interview between his entering a plea and his sentencing.
Along the way, the film highlights various problems with the juvenile justice system in general—issues that become apparent as the scandal unfolds. The idea of zero tolerance may not be one that should apply to children. Schools are very quick to refer troublesome kids to the courts. Do the police and schools play a role in the scandal that developed? Should the courts be seen as a gatekeeper to the juvenile justice system or the gateway? Are children and schools any safer because of the crackdown on misbehavior?
The strength of the film is that it uses the involving narrative of the scandal to raise these questions. The weakness is that the narrative of the scandal is so overpowering that the interesting and important issues are overwhelmed by our thirst to see what will happen to these two judges. Is there to be any justice in the system? The flaws in the juvenile justice system need a more thorough examination than this film can give. But the questions raised go far beyond a pair of judges and their criminal behavior.