Kids for Cash: Film exposes juvenile system failures

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Five years ago, a jaw-dropping scandal rocked Pennsylvania's juvenile justice system: A popular judge, known for the tough sentences he handed out to juveniles, had schemed with another judge to take millions in kickbacks from the builder and operator of two private youth detention facilities. Yet behind that brazen bit of corruption was something worse -- the obliviousness of many court workers and child welfare experts, who didn't seem to have a problem with a "zero tolerance" approach that locked up thousands of kids for years for minor, nonviolent offenses.

The bizarre details of the Pennsylvania outrage can be found in Kids for Cash, a powerful new documentary produced and directed by Robert May. The film had its public debut in New York last month and won't be in wide distribution until next spring. But earlier this week, following a special screening of the film at the Sie FilmCenter, May joined a panel of juvie justice workers for a discussion that demonstrated why legal professionals in Colorado should be paying attention to the larger, systemic issues raised by Kids for Cash.

"Our original structure of the film was 'no winners,'" explained May, who's also been involved as a producer in films ranging from the indie hit The Station Agent to Errol Morris's study of Robert McNamara, The Fog of War. "There are no winners in this story. It's a failure of the system."

May's film follows the rage, humiliation and heartache of several juveniles whose lives are turned upside down by the draconian justice of Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella, who believes that even the most petty school disruptions, such as a kid who mouths off or a girl who mocks her vice principal with a satiric MySpace page, can best be addressed by locking kids up. After the Columbine shootings, the zero-tolerance mantra became widely used in the juvenile system, even though there's little evidence of a deterrence effect -- and plenty of evidence of the harm inflicted on first-time offenders who end up trapped in a system that has a revolving door for an exit.

Ciavarella never received cash payments for each body sentenced to jail, and he insists the seven-figure sum he collected for assisting some enterpreneurs in the private sector who wanted to build and operate a private hoosegow for kids amounted to a "finder's fee," not a kickback. But May ably shows that all this greed and hypocrisy wouldn't have flourished quite so readily if the system wasn't so secretive, complacent -- and quick to demonize the teens it's supposedly designed to help.

One startling figure that emerges from the investigation is that 54 percent of the families coming into Ciavarella's courtroom for a detention hearing signed a waiver of their child's right to counsel. Many apparently didn't realize what they were signing away, and the lack of representation was a key factor in later getting close to 2,500 cases reversed and expunged. In Colorado, nearly half of the juvenile proceedings statewide proceed without any defense counsel whatsoever; in three counties, there's no attorney for the juvenile more than 60 percent of the time.

Juvenile advocates are pushing for a change in state law that would require defense attorneys for those facing the delinquency process. "How can you have a system of checks and balances when there's no one in the courtroom?" asked Kim Dvorchak, executive director of the Colorado Juvenile Defender Coalition, one of the groups responsible for bringing May and his film to Denver. "The prosecutor is there, saying what's okay, but we have got to hold these systems accountable."

Ciavarella and the other judge got lengthy prison sentences for their part in the scheme. The companies that built and operated the private lockups recently settled a civil suit for $2.5 million. But there doesn't seem to be any kind of serious penalty, let alone a zero-tolerance policy, for the injustices built into the juvenile system itself.

More from our Follow That Story archive circa January: "Colorado's juvenile courts suffer from 'benign neglect,' new study claims."

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