The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Kids for Cash

The U.S. incarcerates five times as many children as any other country. Think about that for a second. What are we doing? Why are we locking children up? Even more shocking is that 95% of them are incarcerated for non-violent crimes. These are some of the facts presented in Kids for Cash, a documentary that was of particular interest to me, as it deals with a scandal that occurred not far away from The Aisle Seat's base of operation. I knew most of the details of the case from local media coverage but was still riveted by every second of the film. This is an exceedingly well-made and important doc that will have you questioning the state of the juvenile justice system.

Mark Ciavarella was a judge in Luzurne County, Pennsylvania. He was known for being tough on crime, especially when it came to young people. Ciavarella would go to every school in the county on a yearly basis to warn the students that he'd lock them up if they ever made their way into his courtroom. He made good on that promise. Together with another local judge, Michael Conahan, he was accused of accepting money in exchange for sentencing teenagers to long periods of detention at a brand-new, highly expensive facility. Many of the teens were hauled into court without representation (thanks to a confusing waiver of their rights), and their crimes included such relatively low-key things as trespassing in vacant buildings and mocking a school principal on MySpace. The scandal become known as “Kids for Cash” and garnered nationwide attention.

Kids for Cash interviews some of the young people who were locked up by Ciavarella. In each case, they describe utter shock and fear at being incarcerated for minor offenses. More often than not, they were also put away for extended periods of time – sometimes years – which ultimately led to ongoing depression, anxiety, and, for one young woman, post-traumatic stress disorder. We also meet one mother whose son went on a downward spiral after being sentenced by Ciavarella, eventually committing suicide. There is a powerful moment in which she confronts him in a fit of rage outside the Luzurne County courthouse. These interviews give the movie power, but what's really astonishing is that director Robert May gets Mark Ciavarella himself to participate. The judge is steadfast in his insistence that he never sold kids for cash. He does, however, cop to failing to report to the IRS that he had a financial stake in the building of that new detention center to which he sent so many children. If you know the facts of the case, you know how important this admission is; if not, you'll be fascinated by how the prosecutors ultimately got him.

While the tour through this scandal is engrossing/infuriating, the movie understands that the real issue isn't so much whether Ciavarella incarcerated kids for cash, it's that he always incarcerated kids. (Over 3,000 of them total.) Even before the scandal broke, the judge had an unusually high rate of putting young people away. It almost seemed to be a mission for him. Ciavarella told himself he was acting in their best interests, but it seems more as though he was acting out an antiquated “nip it in the bud” style of child-rearing that has long proven unsuccessful and, even worse, detrimental. (He describes his father punching him in the face to teach him a lesson for stealing as a teen.) Kids for Cash argues that this shameful event was a natural evolution of our already-flawed juvenile justice system. There's money to be made tearing children away from their families and placing them in detention facilities or foster homes, and since we view incarcerating non-violent offenders as a viable option, it was almost a certainty that some day kids who committed minor misdeeds would end up feeding the machine.

Kids for Cash does what any great advocacy doc does: give you the cold hard facts to get you angry and make you want to pay attention so that something like this never happens again.

( out of four)

Note: Kids for Cash is available on iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, Movies on Demand, and other VOD outlets.

Kids for Cash is rated PG-13 for some thematic material and language. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.

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