Robert May’s doc Kids for Cash is based on a judicial miscarriage that makes some of us want to grab a pitchfork and … Sorry. Emotions run riot in the faces of children sent by the thousands to a for-profit juvenile-detention center by a Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, judge named Mark Ciavarella, later convicted of receiving kickbacks. The kids’ offenses were as minor as shoplifting DVDs and, most notoriously, creating a satirical MySpace page that made fun of a vice-principal—years for sass.
Surprisingly, Ciavarella sat down for extended interviews with May and comes off as even tempered. (“I’m not this mad judge.”) He disputes taking a bribe for every kid convicted, admitting only to accepting a finder’s fee upwards of $2 million for helping to get the center built. But he doesn’t repent his judicial philosophy. May’s chief focus is so-called Zero Tolerance, whereby the threat of incarceration is supposed to be a deterrent for all sorts of standard juvenile misbehaviors. Community fears were stoked by tragedies like Columbine, but statistics suggest Zero Tolerance does more harm than good. In the end, Ciavarella seems like a sad fool who nurtures a bizarrely fond memory of getting drunk as a kid and being struck so hard by his father that he was knocked unconscious. That was a parent!
The movie would be better if May spent less time skipping among damaged children and more exploring the specifics of Ciavarella’s guilt. (He was convicted of only 12 of those 39 counts and maintains he was framed for the most notorious.) And I’d liked him to have asked the judge specifically about the MySpace girl, whose case led to his comeuppance. But it’s a huge story, and Kids for Cash provides a measure of justice.
Kids for Cash, Directed by Robert May, SenArt Films, PG-13.
*This article appeared in the February 24, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.