Greetings again from the darkness. Focusing on “the honorable” Judge Ciavarelli and Judge Conahan of Pennsylvania, director Robert May (Producer: The War Tapes, The Fog of War) provides some insight into a despicable miscarriage of justice that the media labeled Kids for Cash. It’s a catchy phrase that can best be defined as a convergence of some less-than-favorable traits: abuse of power, over-the-top greed, and a collapse of trust in the juvenile justice system.
The talking head approach is on full display, and proves quite effective here. We get interviews and statements from attorneys, journalists, citizens, a particularly vocal radio talk show, and surprisingly, even Judge Ciavarelli and Judge Conahan. The biggest wallop comes from the words and body language of those most directly impacted – the kids and their parents.
For those unfamiliar with the story, Ciavarelli and Conahan were charged in various felonies related to their conspiratorial actions that led to the closing of a County facility, the fundraising for a new private facility, and the subsequent sentencing of thousands of kids to ensure the facility remained at capacity. The financial rewards for these two men included “finder’s fees” ($2 million for Ciavarelli), or what most others would term bribes or kickbacks.
The actions of Judge Ciavarelli are defended by his staunch campaign strategy of “Zero Tolerance” in the wake of the Columbine tragedy. Once elected, his frequent speeches at local schools reinforced his commitment to zero tolerance, and his promise to severely penalize any kid that ran afoul of the law. In theory, most of this sounds like a formidable stance, however, the real problem occurs when the test of reasonableness is absent in the charging of teenagers (some only 13 or 14) with a crime. This is where the film falls a bit short. The kids going to court makes a dramatic story, but the missing link is HOW does this happen when most of these cases come across as schoolyard dust-ups, typical teenager antics (a MySpace page), and simply part of the maturing process for adolescents?
There is an acknowledgment that most young teenagers don’t have the necessary decision-making skills or sense of judgment to handle these situations. The point is well made that teenagers are not just “little adults” … there is much growth to come, both physically and intellectually. This leads to the real question: why aren’t we doing a better job of allowing kids to develop their judgment and dispute resolution skills. The pizza shop guy in the movie says “we all got in playground fights“. He’s right! But these days, that gets the kid (even first time offenders) arrested and possibly sent away … where they come back hardened and angry. This approach is not working – though, I’m certainly not suggesting mass playground fights. There has to be a better way.
This story really isn’t about the kids, rather the attention is on the (then) upcoming trials of the two judges. The film’s tone shifts to one of revenge and reckoning. It’s an emotional and powerful time, and neither of the judges come across as believable or likable. In fact, Conahan strikes a plea bargain, and Ciavarelli defiantly states he is not guilty of “kids for cash” … AFTER being found guilty of 12 felonies on related issues! His true character shines through.
The film expertly tells the story … often very personal stories … of some of those impacted by the Kids for Cash scandal. It raises many questions on numerous topics, though most are overshadowed by the focus on the judges’ trials. Near the end, many statistics are displayed – some of which could support their own documentary. The real impact of a documentary is judged by its call to action – the ability to get people involved in finding answers and solutions. Let’s hope the impact is profound, even if it’s too late for some.
To learn more about the film and watch the trailer, visit the website: http://kidsforcashthemovie.com/