US youth justice scandal highlighted in documentary 'Kids for Cash' | South China Morning Post
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  • Jan 31, 2015
  • Updated: 2:53pm

US youth justice scandal highlighted in documentary 'Kids for Cash'

Documentary shows how teenagers jailed by corrupt judges are rebuilding their lives

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 February, 2014, 9:42pm
UPDATED : Monday, 03 February, 2014, 9:42pm

Charlie Balasavage, a baby-faced boy of 14, landed in juvenile detention after his parents bought him a stolen scooter.

Hillary Transue was sent away over a MySpace parody of her vice-principal.

Justin Bodnar was locked up for mouthing off to a woman at his school bus stop.

They are just three among thousands of youths whose lives were derailed by a corrupt Pennsylvania judge, a post-Columbine fervour for zero-tolerance policies and a secretive juvenile court system, according to a story detailed in a new US documentary Kids for Cash.

"I wanted them to be scared out of their minds. I don't understand how that's a bad thing," disgraced former judge Mark Ciavarella says in the film, which chronicles the abusive practices - and kickback scandal - that festered behind closed doors at his Wilkes-Barre courtroom.

The film premieres tomorrow in Philadelphia before opening in cinemas across the US.

Ciavarella is serving a 28-year sentence - and fellow ex-judge Michael Conahan 17 years - for taking US$2.6 million from companies looking to build and fill a youth detention centre for Luzerne County.

Children as young as 10 were handcuffed and shackled without so much as a chance to say goodbye to their families in a scandal dubbed "Kids for Cash".

The Kafkaesque stories of children Ciavarella removed from home after five-minute hearings, with no defence lawyers in court, have been told in news accounts, lawsuits and investigative hearings since the scandal broke in 2008.

The film follows five teens as they try to rebuild their lives. Once in the juvenile court system, most cycled in and out of custody for years.

"He went there as a free- spirited kid. He came out a hardened man," Sandy Fonzo says wistfully of her son.

Director Robert May, who produced the Oscar-winning documentary Fog of War and The Station Agent, won the trust of the fallen judges, who secretly met him as their case played out. He felt their co-operation was crucial to give the film balance and dramatic tension.

"No one wants to go see a preachy film," said May, who works in New York City but lives in Luzerne County with his wife and children. "I am proud every time somebody says they have empathy for the judges, or it screws up everything they thought they knew."

The film explores why other people in the justice system stayed silent. The filmmaker sees it as part of a larger problem.

"As a society, as soon as someone's accused of something, we say they're guilty," May said.


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