Documentary 'Kids for Cash' to premiere at Kimmel

Robert May, director of the documentary "Cash for Kids," about the Luzerne juvenile-justice scandal.
Robert May, director of the documentary "Cash for Kids," about the Luzerne juvenile-justice scandal. (SenArt Films)
Posted: February 05, 2014

What will they think of me?

The question brought Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. to tears.

For years, Ciavarella, a former Luzerne County Court judge, had defiantly fought charges that he took kickbacks to sentence thousands of young offenders to private juvenile detention centers.

During a moment of reflection while awaiting sentencing for corruption in 2011, Ciavarella broke down, imagining how his own grandchildren would perceive him.

"I would hope that they understand that their grandfather screwed up big-time," he said, tears welling in his eyes. "And couldn't be in their life because of it. Kind of tough, if what they get to know is that their grandfather was a scumbucket."

The conviction of Ciavarella and his fellow Judge Michael T. Conahan ended an infamous chapter in Pennsylvania judicial history, one that led to a wave of changes in the juvenile justice system.

His emotional moment - a rarity for a man proud of his hardened persona - is an equally unrivaled moment, captured in Kids for Cash, a documentary on the scandal directed by Robert May, which will premiere Wednesday at the Kimmel Center.

Ciavarella's remarks come from one of more than a dozen original interviews in the film, offering a nuanced and detailed portrait of those caught up in the scandal that unraveled in 2008.

May, who lives in Luzerne County, filmed from 2009 through 2012 - after the judges had been indicted on federal racketeering charges. He recorded more than 600 hours of footage, he said, much of it while the fallout from the case was still settling.

The film includes interviews with juvenile defendants and their parents; the cofounders of the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, which worked on behalf of many defendants; Luzerne County's chief public defender; a reporter from the Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader; and the superintendent of the Wilkes-Barre School District.

But the biggest coup, May concedes, was persuading Ciavarella and Conahan to appear on camera.

Both spoke without telling their lawyers, May said - even as Ciavarella was mounting a defense in federal court, and as Conahan was working on a plea deal that ended with his being sentenced to 17 years in prison.

Ciavarella was eventually found guilty of racketeering as well and sentenced to 28 years in prison. He is serving his sentence in Illinois; Conahan is at a Florida prison.

At the time May approached them, around 2009, Ciavarella and Conahan had not been convicted, but they were publicly disgraced - accused of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars each from the developer of two private juvenile facilities, then concealing the payments in elaborate money-laundering schemes.

Ciavarella, who oversaw Luzerne County's juvenile court, sent thousands of children to those facilities during his time on the bench, at a rate higher than any other juvenile court judge in the state.

Thus, the scandal became known as "Kids for Cash," and public outrage swirled nationwide.

May's approach to the judges was that the media coverage had been "one-sided," he said in an interview. He told Ciavarella and Conahan that he wanted to hear their side of the story as well.

The result is a 102-minute film that crisscrosses between juveniles and judges - or, as May puts it, "victims and villains."

Though many families express resentment about the way they were treated by Ciavarella, the former judge is generally unapologetic - accepting fault for concealing payments from the developer, but saying they had no impact on his sentencing decisions.

Conahan, too, says the only issue in his situation was accepting compensation as a judge.

But there are emotional moments for both in the film - Ciavarella while considering what his grandchildren will think, Conahan while discussing why he agreed to his plea deal.

May hopes that footage adds nuance to the overall story and provides audiences with a fuller perspective of all the characters involved.

Marsha Levick, cofounder of the Juvenile Law Center, who fought on behalf of defendants from Ciavarella's courtroom, was uninspired by the former judges' words.

She said the film simply demonstrated the continued need to pay great attention to juvenile justice.

"This is a system," she said, "that can potentially affect all of our children."


cpalmer@phillynews.com

609-217-8305

@cs_palmer   

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