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Kids for Cash Movie Review


SenArt Film

Reviewed for Shockya by Harvey Karten. Data-based on Rotten Tomatoes

Grade: B

Director: Robert May

Cast: Mark Ciavarella, Michael Conahan, Justin Bodner, Hillary Transue, Amanda Lorah, Sandy Fonzo, Charlie Balasavage, Terrie Morgan-Besecker

Screened at: Review 1, NYC, 2/3/14

Opens: February 7 in Philadelphia, February 28 in NY, March 7 in L.A.

In directing this documentary, Robert May casts his indictments across a broad spectrum of American society. May shocks the audience straight-out with the message sprawled across the screen that only three countries have refused to sign the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child: Somalia, South Sudan, and…the United States! One wishes that the director would afford an analysis of America’s refusal to go along with what seems like a win-win document and which presumably even North Korea and Iran have signed. Those who have ratified the document agree to allow U.N. inspectors to look into charges of injustices toward human beings under the age of eighteen, which may seem to us in America like too much sovereignty to give up to an international body. Or there may be another reason, but May does not try to analyze what an audience for his documentary should expect him to do.

Instead, he uses his 102 minutes of time repeating the out-of-court testimonies of both the kids who have been abused in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania and the country of Luzerne when he should have been analyzing what conditions are like in the detention center to which these children are sent—3,000 by a hanging judge who, together with a co-conspirator, has agreed to take an active role in the doc to defend himself.

Despite some errors of omission, though, “Kids for Cash” does feed our outrage by elaborating upon the evils of a judge who allegedly send kids up the river for minor offenses. Why so? Some counts of an indictment against Judge Mark Ciavarella, who won two terms of ten years each by campaigning on a program that’s reminiscent of the “put ‘em away and throw away the key” policy which, especially after the tragic Columbine killings has become a watchword with all too many ordinary people.

Specifically: Judge Mark Ciavarella, who had made the rounds of the schools in Luzerne County, had been telling his youthful audiences that if they do wrong, they will be sent away by him to learn a lesson—forgetting that human brains have not developed to incorporate a complete sense of ethics until their owners are twenty-five. They indulge in pranks, eager to fit in with the cool kids in their groups, so why not take cars for joyrides, have fights in the schoolyard, and make fun of the teaching and administrative staffs in schools by posting caricatures on MySpace and Facebook? Would you believe that one kid was sent away to juvenile detention for making use of the Constitutional right to free speech?

The problem with this judge began in earnest when he arranged with a builder to set up a private “detention center” for juveniles, receiving half of a $2.2 million “finders’ fee” which he shared with another criminal judge, Michael Conahan, but then “forgot” to pay tax on the money. The federal government, in trying Ciavarella, rejected a plea bargain, yet found it necessary to avoid charging Ciavarella with collecting a bounty from the developer for every kid he sent to the detention center. Instead, he was charged with tax evasion, racketeering (we don’t find out why), money laundering (we do get the facts on this), and extortion (huh? From whom was he extorting money?)

Interviews with the young people he sent away after their release show that these teens are articulate. They are convincing in letting us on the ways their lives have changed. Some come out of the private jail hardened, instructed on such matters as how to build a bomb. Others wind up with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. One guy committed suicide with a rifle aimed at his heart.

Mothers are interviewed. While they are, of course, furious at the judge, they share some of the blame. They are asked before seeing the judge whether they waive their right to an attorney. Stupidly, most do thinking that they should trust the authorities to do the right thing by their offspring. Yet we wonder whether even Alan Dershowitz could make an impression on Judge Ciavarella who is presumably invoking guidelines set up by state law. We wonder whether the kids could have demanded the right to a jury trial. No details from director May. We wonder whether they were apprised of their right to file appeals? Again, we learn nothing from this doc about that.

The ultimate text that flashes across the screen notes that the U.S. spends $10,500 to educate a child for a year. To finance a child’s stay in a detention center? $88,000. Incredible. As stated, fault lies with the state for allowing this disproportionate sentencing; for the kids, though they are generally too young to know the consequences of their relatively mild criminal activities, to the mothers who seem all to come from homes without fathers, and of course to Judge Mark Ciavarella. Does Ciavarella get a taste of his own medicine? Tune in by seeing the film.

Rated PG-13. 102 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B

Acting – B+

Technical – B

Overall – B

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Harvey Karten is the founder of the The New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) an organization composed of Internet film critics based in New York City. The group meets once a year, in December, for voting on its annual NYFCO Awards.

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