Film and TV

Emotions run high in the compelling Kids for Cash

The fairy-tale fear of a powerful man stealing children is the infuriating heart of Kids for Cash, a compelling and well-reported documentary look at how Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, teenagers wound up serving bona fide cell time for crimes like slapping a classmate, buying a scooter that turned out to have been stolen, and launching a fake MySpace page lampooning the assistant principal. Director Robert May gives time to kids and parents who suffered the most outlandish of the incarcerations, and they're persuasive in arguing that the scare-'em-straight sentencing of Judge Mark Ciavarella has not, as the judge insists, made his detainees better people. One boy silver-bullets that claim with this: "You don't put a twelve-year-old in there with criminals and expect him to come out saying, 'I'm going to be an outstanding citizen.' He comes out knowing how to make explosives." The most wrenching testimony comes from Sandy Fonzo, the mother of a teenager who fled the state to avoid being sent up on his second minor offense and eventually took his own life. She descends upon Ciavarella on the courthouse steps like a Fury: "Do you remember my son?" she screams. "He shot himself in the heart, you scumbag!" After sentencing over 3,000 minors, Ciavarella eventually stood trial himself, for racketeering, tax fraud, and allegedly accepting more than $2 million in kickbacks from the prison-industrial complex. Before getting slapped into his own shackles, the judge sat down with the filmmakers to defend himself, but only proves contemptible, claiming he only ever had the good of the children at heart.

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Alan Scherstuhl is film editor and writer at Voice Media Group. VMG publications include Denver Westword, Miami New Times, Phoenix New Times, Dallas Observer, Houston Press and New Times Broward-Palm Beach.
Contact: Alan Scherstuhl