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‘Kids for Cash’: Odd choices obscure an outrageous injustice


SenArt Films presents a documentary directed by Robert May. Rated PG-13 (for mature thematic material and brief strong language). Running time: 102 minutes. Opens Friday at AMC River East 21.

“Kids For Cash” documents a venal travesty of justice in Pennsylvania. At the Luzerne County courthouse — built in 1909 with bribes — Judge Mark A. Ciavarella put children in shackles after hearings lasting a few minutes. Thousands of teens with minor infractions were incarcerated in private facilities paying kickbacks to Ciavarella and a crony on the bench.

First-time director Robert May, a longtime resident of corrupt Luzerne County, updates the scandal sketched in 2009 episodes of ABC’s “20/20” and Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: A Love Story.” William Ecenbarger’s 2012 book “Kids for Cash: Two Judges, Thousands of Children, and a $2.8 Million Kickback Scheme imparts more tawdry detail than May, who opts for tears on camera.

Starting in 1999, juvenile advocates from Philadelphia and local reporters exposed a zealous policy of “zero tolerance” tainted with avarice. The twice-elected Ciavarella — wearing a red sweater, not his former black robe or the khaki garb issued in federal prison — weeps before heading to Pekin, Ill., to do 28 years for 12 felonies. He must pay $2.17 million too.

Criminal records of 2,401 “adjudicated juveniles” got expunged. Five teens blame Ciavarella for more than interrupting their high school years. One suffers post-traumatic stress disorder. Another commits suicide.

May errs, however, in styling this human interest saga. In a gloomy attic, we see a cardboard town and kid figures made by May’s wife and daughter. Nor is non-stop music needed, although the Scala & Kolacny Brothers cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” is an inspired choice for the end credits.

In the opening credits there is an accusative note about the United Nations’ Declaration of the Rights of the Child, ratified by 190 countries “… except Somalia, South Sudan and the United States.” May’s point is unclear.

I doubt this $1,000 donor to Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) agrees with the pithy take on Ciavarella by the Workers World Party: “Entire system guilty.” Yet the filmmaker offers a preposterous mea culpa in his press notes: “When I ultimately did find the real villain, I realized that it’s me, it’s you. It’s all of us.” No, one judge decided another judge was the guilty one.

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