‘Kids for Cash’ movie review: Examining a tragedy at many levels


Sandy Fonzo screamed at former judge Mark Ciavarella after a court hearing in 2011. Ciavarella had sent Fonzo’s son to juvenile detention; the boy later committed suicide. (BILL TARUTIS)

If the details of the 2008 “kids for cash” scandal are but a distant memory, here’s a quick refresher: Two Pennsylvania judges pocketed millions from the developer of juvenile detention facilities, where they were sending thousands of kids for minor infractions. It was a stunning abuse of power, and both men were eventually tried and sentenced to long prison terms. Justice, apparently, was served.

Yet the documentary “Kids for Cash” proves that the abuse was both more nuanced and more tragic than the public understood.

In his directorial debut, Robert May examines in granular detail the causes and effects of the scandal, and interviewed dozens of people over a number of years. He spoke to the investigative journalist who broke the story, he followed the children and families affected by the convictions and he interviewed those at the Juvenile Law Center who helped overturn thousands of convictions. Most impressively, May managed to interview both judges, offering the men chances to give their sides of the story.

In May’s telling, it all started with Columbine. That 1999 massacre at a Colorado high school stoked an irrational fear that led school administrators to hand off misbehaving kids to the county. Where a fistfight might have once led to detention or a suspension, now children were getting arrested and, because of judge Mark Ciavarella’s strict zero-tolerance policy, ending up in shackles.

The kids interviewed for the documentary tell similar stories. Some were as young as 12, and the crimes could be as trivial as mouthing off or, in one case, creating a bogus MySpace page to mock an assistant principal. In many cases, the children’s parents were advised by the police to waive legal counsel, although as one public defender wryly notes, even F. Lee Bailey couldn’t have saved these kids from doing time.

Ciavarella saw the zero-tolerance policy as a deterrent for kids. He traveled to schools warning students that he’d lock them up if they landed in his court, and he had the support of the community and schools. But, as the movie shows, the long-term effects were that the kids didn’t learn their lesson so much as sink into deep depression and struggle with post-traumatic stress. Once they finished their sentences, the tiniest infractions would land them back in juvenile detention, where they might learn a thing or two about doing drugs or building a bomb while cultivating a deep hatred for authority.

The most heart-wrenching portions of the movie involve the mothers of the incarcerated kids, who feel enormous guilt. In a moving sequence, one of the women, whose son killed himself, confronts Ciavarella outside the courthouse after his guilty verdict.

The title of the film seems a little misleading, given that Ciavarella was a proponent of sending kids away long before he received cash, which he still justifies as a “finder’s fee.” It only seems to reinforce some misinformation about the case. And some of the movie’s atmospherics, including overly-evocative music and staged visual elements of paper dolls in a dark attic, distract from the weight of the movie.

On Monday, the Supreme Court refused to hear Ciavarella’s appeal, which means his 28-year sentence stands. Some will say “he got his” and move on, but this moving documentary shows that for the kids he sentenced, it isn’t that easy.

★★★

PG-13. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains some thematic material and language.
102 minutes.

Washington-area native Stephanie Merry covers movies, theater and art for Weekend and the Going Out Guide. She’s also the section’s de facto expert on yoga, gluten-free dining and bicycle commuting.
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