12:23 PM EST, February 27, 2014
Once someone comes up with a snazzy, alliterative handle for a corruption story, that's it — careers can be ended in a flash. "Kids for Cash," an impressive, often enraging feature-length debut from director Robert May, deals carefully and well with the so-called kids for cash scandal.
If you're like me, you may enter into May's documentary without clear memories of the news story in question. Here are some facts. In the years leading up to 2009, in the northeastern Pennsylvania county of Luzerne, Juvenile Court Judge Mark Ciavarella made his fearsome reputation for being tough on crime and on teenage miscreants. His rulings funneled 3,000 kids, most of them not guilty of violent crimes, into years of incarceration. He did it in the name of zero-tolerance policies, beginning in the wake of the Columbine school massacre. Nip trouble in the bud. Ciavarella speaks in the film of his own stern and physically punishing upbringing; his entire career seems to be an extension of that childhood.
Then came revelations that grabbed and stoked the headlines. Ciavarella and his fellow judge, Michael Conahan, allegedly received nearly $3 million in what they called "finder's fees," better known as bribes, for sending these adolescents to privately owned juvenile detention institutions. May's film follows the story of five of these victims, shoved into the court system, often without legal representation, flailing once they got out.
It's a heartbreaking saga and weirdly touching. Ciavarella and Conahan don't act like stereotypical greedy antagonists on camera; there's a purity to the degree their actions were guided by simple greed and a belief in the larger goal of keeping so many bad apples out of the public eye. "Kids for Cash" follows the case histories of the five kids, while its present-day narrative keeps an eye on the judges awaiting their own legal fate, post-scandal.
Certain details momentarily trip up a fine film. The musical score by Michael Brook trades in generic "urgency" cues. Now and then, the breadth of the focus becomes a blur. But May, who has worked with Errol Morris, as well as producing the excellent "War Tapes" documentary, maintains both suspense and serious, humane interest in the fates of those sentenced. Our judicial system is prone to wild overcorrections and galling miscarriages of justice, depending on the headlines. Columbine spawned countless such headlines. And then the kids-for-cash scandal spawned its own.
"Kids for Cash" - 3 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some thematic material and language)
Running time: 1:42
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