Late in Robert May’s documentary Kids for Cash, you see a broadcast video of former judge Mark A. Ciavarella as he emerges from the courthouse in Scranton, Pennsylvania, to face a scrum of reporters and camera operators after his February 2011 conviction on twelve of thirty-nine counts of racketeering, bribery and extortion. According to federal prosecutors, he had used his power as the juvenile court judge of neighboring Luzerne County to funnel thousands of children into for-profit prisons in exchange for kickbacks from the operators. As Ciavarella stands in grim silence beside his lawyer, who is making the obligatory futile effort to portray disgrace as exoneration, a slim blond woman named Sandy Fonzo, the mother of one of the wronged children, sweeps around the right flank of the press corps and comes bearing down on Ciavarella, cursing him for having destroyed her son’s life. Had you read about the case in the newspapers, you might have seen that incident frozen as a front-page photograph: the gray, bespectacled, plump-cheeked Ciavarella in the foreground, gazing down at the microphones he won’t use, with Fonzo raging behind his shoulder.
If Kids for Cash were a standard exposé, as it appears to be at first, you might spend an hour and a half with it and never get much deeper than that image of anguished wrath at the back of wrongful authority. But Kids for Cash does not let you off so easily, to turn the page and skim the next outrage. In effect, it takes you inside the front-page photo.
You meet Sandy Fonzo, listen to her stories, watch her home movies and go with her to visit the grave of her son, Ed Kenzakoski. Remarkably, you also visit with Mark Ciavarella in his house, see him with his family, and hear him account for his actions with a mixture of sorrow, bafflement and mounting distress. The picture grows more dense with the testimonies of four survivors of Ciavarella’s courtroom—young adults now, but barely teenagers when they were hauled into a perfunctory, lawyerless trial—who spent years in Pennsylvania juvenile prisons for offenses such as getting into a schoolyard fight, shouting curses at a bus stop and mocking a teacher on MySpace. As these details accumulate, May gradually makes the case that the front-page photo is incomplete. Although Ciavarella was guilty of financial improprieties—and admitted as much—he might have been telling the truth when he insisted that he had not railroaded kids for cash.
He just railroaded kids, and thought it was the right thing to do. According to some of May’s witnesses—the reporter for the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader who covered the story, and the former head of the Luzerne County public defender’s office—Ciavarella had come onto the bench vowing to maintain a zero-tolerance policy for youthful misbehavior and had kept his promise, starting well before the profit-making prisons were built. In the climate of fear that took hold after the Columbine massacre, and in a culture that promoted individual responsibility as the sole cure for all social ills, Ciavarella had won praise and popularity for jailing virtually every child brought before his bench. Never mind that children by nature cannot consistently live up to adult standards of responsibility, as Marsha Levick and Robert Schwartz of Philadelphia’s Juvenile Law Center argue. The public was clamoring for stringency, the schools were happy to dump their troublemakers, and officials across the country were sending more and more children to prison, as if life behind bars would make kids wiser, more amiable and better prepared to do the work of the world—a notion worthy of the man in Swift’s A Tale of a Tub who is shocked to discover that flogging does little to improve a woman’s appearance. Ciavarella himself held firmly to the punitive faith, believing he was helping the kids. This is a man who proudly recalls, when speaking to May’s camera, that his father once turned him away from the path of delinquency by knocking him unconscious.
Kids for Cash is the first film directed by May, who until now has done admirable work as a producer for the likes of Errol Morris and Steve James. Despite the clarity of exposition that he brings to the job, and his caginess in building up and then undermining the received image of Ciavarella, the result is not an especially artful documentary; but it may be something equally valuable. It’s an honest investigation—unprejudiced toward its subjects, thorough in its research, comprehensive in its intellectual framework—and it’s a tragedy.