One Judge. 3,000 imprisoned children. A scandal that rocked the nation.
Every so often, we are reminded of a scandal that might not have risen to OJ levels in terms of media coverage, but one that certainly jogs the memory; one of those scandals that, when you hear about it years later, you say, “Oh yeah. I remember that. Wasn’t that the thing where…?” You might not remember the details, but you certainly remember the circumstances. Kids for Cash is one of those scandals, and it’s now the title of the documentary about it.
In the late 2000s, two judges in Luzerne County, PA, were accused of receiving money in exchange for issuing harsh punishments on badly-behaved and delinquent children, sending them to a privately-owned, for-profit detention center (contracted by the government). That center made more money as a result. This is the documentary about that case and some of those kids.
First-time director Robert May crafts a compelling documentary with Kids for Cash, and he wastes no time grabbing the viewer by the lapels with a troubling series of title cards:
“The child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care …” “… mankind owes to the child the best it has to give.”–The United Nations’ “Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989”
All 193 United Nation member countries have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child…except Somalia, South Sudan, and the United States.
This is followed by campaign footage of Mark Ciavarella running for office (and winning two 10-year terms), promising zero-tolerance on bad kids (eventually, in a very sensitive post-Columbine nation).
And there you go. From here, May deftly pieces the story together from three unique perspectives and does so along linear, but not parallel, timelines. This is all done without narration; only interviews and news footage are used to tell the story.
One perspective comes from the families impacted by the overblown arrests. Parents and children recount their experiences from incident to arrest to conviction to incarceration. While the specific years in question are unique to each child, their collective timeline is told, essentially, in flashback. Their stories are amazing for all the wrong reasons, and even though these kids did bad, they didn’t do that bad, and you feel badly for them. The other two perspectives come from the media, mostly in the form of extensive interviews with local journalist Terrie Morgan (and some occasional local and national news clips), and the man at the center of the controversy, Judge Mark Ciavarella, from whose bench some 3,000 kids were incarcerated, possibly in exchange for kickbacks. (The second judge’s role is explained in the film as well.)
This process of building the story on a triangular structure of accuser/witness/accused (with other involved parties or witnesses along the way to flesh out details) is only half the film’s genius. The other half involves the shared timeline of the reporter and the judge. The victims may speak about what happened in the past because they were interviewed for the film after the fact, but the documentary began filming during the scandal, allowing May to build the story “as it happens.” To watch Morgan, and especially Ciavarella, age and change and offer insight and perspective in this construct is simply fascinating.
Helping May’s cause is some slick editing from Poppy Das, whose career has been spent editing reality television shows like The Bachelor and Wife Swap. This choice by May to draft this talented editor makes perfect sense, as Kids for Cash is about as real as you can get.
Oh, and get the tissues ready for a show-stopper near the film’s end.
Now, all that said, while a documentary can’t necessarily answer every possible question, there are a few unanswered ones from Kids for Cash that immediately spring to mind and are critical enough that they should have been addressed.
There is no clear explanation presented as to why the children’s sentences were as long as they were (some of these kids served five and six years), nor why the sentence lengths were never questioned. There are also suggestions Ciavarella orchestrated a system where countless kids (and their parents) were persuaded to waive legal representation, but it never reasons (or even suggests) who else was involved. In addition, there is no sense that parents tried to do anything more while their kids were in jail.
The 1.85:1 anamorphic video transfer on the Kids for Cash DVD is very good. All images are clear, colors are sharp, and light levels are well-managed. Dated source footage is presented as well as it can be. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track is particularly strong. Michael Brook’s score seems ever-preset, yet it never intrudes on nor drowns out dialogue.
In addition to the film’s trailer, there are three extras on the Kids for Cash DVD:
The Stills Gallery features 10 stills taken from the film. Stills are viewed using Next and Previous arrows.
Kids in the System is a 16:50 featurette that bills itself as containing “Additional Interviews.” It does, but the majority of it is nothing more than a lot of footage from the film, focusing specifically on the victims.
Finally, there is an Information Booklet in the case. It’s only four pages, but it offers resource links for additional footage, more information on how to support the cause, and links to additional content that didn’t make the final cut.
Kids for Cash is a staggering documentary about abuse of power, fragility of trust, and devastation of greed. It balances well the heartbreaking tales told by the victims and their families with a “you are there” story not only told chronologically, but also unraveled as it was happening. It is very much worth seeking out.