In the 35 years since Scared Straight! won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, there have been numerous follow-ups and a brand of juvenile rehabilitation programs named after it. Have the films and the efforts they’ve inspired worked? That’s up for debate in some areas, but regardless it’s worth noting their one major limitation: they aim to teach kids that if they do something criminal they’ll go to prison. Well, there’s a new doc that goes further to send a scarier message to our youth. Robert May’s Kids For Cash offers the cynical idea that kids can be completely or relatively innocent and still wind up incarcerated, because you never know when a mishandling of justice may occur for someone of any age.
Specifically, this doc is about a scandal involving corrupt judges in Pennsylvania who sent thousands of youths to a detention center from which they received millions of dollars. The verdict on whether that was kickback money incentivizing the conviction of all those minors is both complicated and, I suppose, kind of a spoiler (never mind that it’s public record). And May was able to interview both of the men, Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan, meaning we get to hear their side of the story quite candidly. This is yet another doc that stands out by giving a voice to its villains, although in this case, particularly Ciavarella really tries to make the case that he isn’t a bad guy at all, maybe just someone who ironically lacked good judgement.
I don’t like to censure the real people appearing in a documentary (my job is to criticize the film, not its subjects), but there are times during Kids For Cash when it’s hard not to do so with Ciavarella and Conahan — even if May maintains an open playing field for all. When Ciavarella says things like, “Did I know it was a crime? No,” and “I asked him if this was legal,” these defenses come across as absurdly naive or totally idiotic coming from such a high-up figure in the judicial system. His admission on screen to slipping up ethically is one thing, but it’s surprising that he’d agree to appear and then claim to have been ignorant to what is and isn’t against the law while sentencing teenagers for making a satirical MySpace page about their vice principal and other harmless acts by kids just being kids. Yet another bad decision on his part, but great for the film.
May also puts forth the stories of some of those former kids who were given a bum ride by Ciaverella, one of them for unknowingly possessing a stolen scooter bought for him by his parents, which without more information given sounds totally unbelievable. The handful of subjects appear to tell of their stupid mistakes and misfortune that cost them dearly under Luzerne County’s zero tolerance policy for students, enacted post-Columbine. Some cases are more pertinent than others to the narrative of the scandal, as chronicled in the film, and most regardless provide an emotional center, but while hearing from victims remains a vital part of issue films, this isn’t really one of those, and as we’re seeing from an increasing amount of docs (most famously Oscar nominee The Act of Killing) testimonial from perpetrators is so much more fascinating.
Even better, though, is confrontation between the two sides, and Kids For Cash has a spectacularly intense moment of that sort involving another character whose son was sent away by Ciaverella. It’s one of many moving moments that would work in a documentary more broadly focused on juvenile detention in general, and this film is indeed partly, if implicitly so, just that. Ciaverella is continually, by himself and by others, noted as having been hard on kids before receiving his big incentive. He says, “I wanted them to be scared out of their minds,” regarding the message he sent teens both during high school visits and through his record. We’re made to question whether that toughness on minors is a bad thing in and of itself. Occasionally, though, blame is put on the parents.
There are likely many factors to consider, and in the process of concentrating on the story of the “kids for cash” scandal, the doc does a fine job raising those other points if not fully tackling them (nor needing to). Privatized juvenile detention ends up looking exactly like the systemic racket of the prison industry, as seen in Eugene Jarecki’s The House I Live In. And just in case the Paradise Lost trilogy didn’t drive this home enough already, Kids For Cash shows that minors have just as much to fear with regard to wrongful conviction and coerced, unrepresented confession as adults. It’s not paranoid of us to assume similar injustice occurs elsewhere, just as we can be sure a regular outpouring of Innocence Project-related docs only show us a small percentage of all the wrongfully convicted serving time in the U.S.
May’s film is a good account of an isolated problem that has come to its conclusion, for the most part. It’s history, basically, and thereby it can now serve, in addition to being simply an outrageous story to be told, as a warning to youths, parents, communities and legal rights organizations that mishandling of juvenile cases is so easy and can go a long way without notice, and in the end the true culprits in these cases may pay for their crimes but the damage to thousands of lives is done and impossibly fully salvaged. Kids For Cash is a nonfiction horror movie complete with a massive teenage body count, and here’s hoping that unlike most scary movies this one doesn’t get a sequel.