Film Review: ‘Kids for Cash’

Some of the problems our country has faced over the past few decades are ramifications of decisions made in misguided attempts at safety or social order. In the new documentary Kids for Cash, filmmakers look at one of the biggest national scandals of the past few decades – the incarceration of 3,000 children in a privately-run juvenile detention center by one man, Judge Mark Ciavarella.

First elected in the mid-90s, Ciavarella ran on a campaign to straighten out school children with zero tolerance policies. Following the events of Columbine in 1999, Ciavarella doubled down on his policy. Incarceration rates for young defendants skyrocketed for years afterwards, with kids being sentenced for anything from drug use and fights to creating fake MySpace profiles mocking a vice principal.

A combination of factors brought attention to Ciavarella’s methods from both nonprofits and federal investigators. First was an unusual practice used to get defendants and their parents to waive their rights to counsel under the guise of suggesting they weren’t needed at the time, then sentencing defendants at rapid speeds. The second, and ultimately more damning, factor was the judge’s involvement in the building of a private detention center, where he was subsequently paid for his involvement and failed to report the income to the IRS or disclose his involvement to anyone appearing in front of him in court.

The documentary begins as an indictment against Ciavarella specifically. As it goes on, though, a broader picture starts to form. While this case is a particularly nasty extreme, the broader dangers of subjecting children to laws with the punishment of incarceration can be detrimental to their long-term development. The chances of returning to such facilities, according to the filmmakers, are high, while the isolation it brings typically has debilitating effects on the ability to form healthy relationships with others.

While there’s a definite objective in making this film, filmmakers do attempt to show some balance by including interviews with Ciavarella, where he attempts to defend himself and make his arguments for the necessity of zero tolerance policies. He also argues that his involvement with the detention center had no bearing on his rulings, which may have some validity – he was throwing children in jail at high rates well before his involvement. But whether he did or didn’t sell convictions for his pay, the damage he did to a group of children is undeniable.

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Kids for Cash is in theaters now. The film is rated PG-13 for thematic elements and language.

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