'Kids For Cash' review: Stories and people are more than headlines

'Kids For Cash'

'Kids For Cash' (February 25, 2014)

*** (out of four)

A documentary shouldn’t compare the U.S.’s annual child incarceration rate with other countries’ lower tallies without a deep analysis. Instead, “Kids for Cash” focuses exclusively on Pennsylvania judge Mark Ciavarella, who became the centerpiece of a late-’00s scandal after he locked up countless minors for minor offenses and appeared to accept a kickback for creating and filling a new juvenile detention facility. He was labeled the “Kids for Cash” judge, a tag the public and media unsurprisingly latched onto quickly.

What makes first-time filmmaker Robert May’s doc, “Kids for Cash,” compelling is there’s a lot more to the story, and in it a staggeringly ironic case of misinformed blanket judgment about a man who did the exact same thing. The film features interviews with some of the Luzerne County kids, sent away for years even though their offenses were often nothing more than posting a fake Myspace page or a petty fight during gym class. Ciavarella ran on a platform of merciless penalties for juvenile offenders, believing in the wake of the 1999 Columbine tragedy that troublemakers who come into his courtroom should face zero-tolerance policies.

Less disturbing than the ethical violations May identifies among Ciavarella and another judge who accept a “finder’s fee” for the new facility is the notion that kids who aren’t violent will come out with a greater inclination toward violence and minimal chance of returning to school. May raises a lot of big issues, several of which are only glanced at or left totally unexplored. (He also includes far too many shots of his young subjects when they were younger, driving home that they’re kids.) The term “mental health” isn’t uttered once, and the larger issue of a rise in minors’ violent activity deserves more attention. Plus, surely there were some kids Ciavarella sent away who deserved harsh punishment. What’s to be done with them? These are issues more worthy of discussion than thoughts from people at Tony’s Diner—including a cook wearing a shirt that says, “I ate the ‘Fat Bastard’ at Tony’s.”

Yet the film also is an interesting dissection of the difference between correlation and causation and the tendency to indict someone at face value. That type of knee-jerk reaction is its own, thoughtless brand of scary.
 

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com

 

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