Kids for Cash | Film | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Kids for Cash

A documentary looks at the Luzerne County scandal, and asks: Why do we lock up so many kids?

Center of the scandal: Judge Mark Ciavarella
Center of the scandal: Judge Mark Ciavarella

Robert May's documentary Kids for Cash take a comprehensive look at the judicial scandal in Luzerne County that made national headlines. The media shorthand was: Juvenile-court judge Mark Ciavarella sentenced thousands of teens, often for minor infractions, while receiving kickbacks from the private jail where they were incarcerated — a.k.a. "kids for cash."

May interviews kids who were sentenced, their parents, school administrators, local media (in particular Terrie Morgan-Besecker, who did extensive reporting at the Times Leader), legal experts and both judges convicted in the scheme. Most notably, he reveals that there never was a kids-for-cash set-up; the judges took a one-time payout related to the jail's construction deal.

But perhaps even more disturbing is the portrait that does emerge, one that isn't necessarily unique to Luzerne County: the devastating consequences of a post-Columbine "no tolerance" era fueled by panicked schools, and aided by a judge who believed in the power of hard time, expeditiously dispensed. (Many kids waived the right to an attorney.)

Less discussed is the privatizing of prisons, and how simply filling them becomes a money-generator, but it's another grim piece of this puzzle. We're the jailing-est nation on earth — one-fifth of the world's locked-up kids are in U.S. jails — not because we're the worst people, but because it's a lucrative business.

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