Friday, March 07, 2014
"Kids for Cash": judge in Pennsylvania caught up in hidden, accidental kickbacks from private builders of juvenile detention facilities
“Kids for Cash” is a riveting documentary, about getting into trouble in more than one area. The previews show a teenage girl in northeastern Pennsylvania talking about how she thought it would be funny to make a fake MySpace profile of her assistant principal. A few days later, police show up at the door, accusing her of fraud and even terrorism. She winds up locked in juvenile detention for three years. (In Virginia, that would be “harassment by computer”, a misdemeanor. In fact, there is a scandal in Manassas Va on Instagram right now, wjla story here.).
And juvenile detention amounts to jail, as it is shown in the film.
When judge Mark Ciavarella was elected in Luzerne County, PA in 1995, he promised a law and order reign. After Columbine in 1999, school systems began to crack down with zero-tolerance policies. Ciavarella would meet with students and say “the only person who can control your life is you. You can’t go back and undo a mistake.”
The judge says he consistently applied his harsh sentences even before he was approached by private contractors building corrections facilities for kickbacks, and that his sentencing practice was not a “cash for kids” program. (The phrase makes sense with either word order.) Nevertheless, it was obviously a severe conflict of interest. He says he did not report the money to the IRS because he didn’t want to call attention to it. He describes his own behavior as an ethical slippery slope, with increasing steepness. The judge wound up with 28 years in prison for "racketeering" and income tax evasion, but was acquitted of the most direct bribery charges. Another judge, who liked to escape to Florida, wound up in federal prison in Florida for 17 years.
The narratives of the kids are quite compelling. A few were locked up, deprived of high school education and gradually learning the tricks of crime, for very minor behavior offences. One particularly smart boy says he wants to become a musician. All lost their adolescence. The film makes a good argument that the teen brain is not fully developed and that teens are not little adults (although some seem like it).
CNN has a narrative history of the case here.
Democracy Now has a short film (17 minutes) on the scandal, also called “Kids for Cash”, on YouTube here.
The film played before a fair crowd at the early evening show at Landmark E Street in Washington.