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'Kids for Cash' a hair-raising documentary

The story of Pa. judges who sent juveniles to a for-profit prison that paid them under the table.

Sandy Fonzo yells at Judge Mark Ciavarella as he leaves court in 2011. Fonzo’s son, Ed, committed suicide after his release from prison.
Sandy Fonzo yells at Judge Mark Ciavarella as he leaves court in 2011. Fonzo’s son, Ed, committed suicide after his release from prison.Read moreTIMES LEADER PUBLICATIONS

"THE HUNGER Games" is just sci-fi, set in a future we'll probably never see.


No decent society would allow its leaders to throw working-class teens into a deadly meat-grinder in order to create an authoritarian public spectacle designed to keep the rabble in line.

Keep telling yourself that as you watch the hair-raising documentary "Kids for Cash," based on the notorious case of Luzerne County judges convicted of sending juveniles to a new for-profit prison that they endorsed building and whose developer paid them under the table.

One of the judges, we see, was a local celebrity long before the case against him developed. Mark Ciavarella was a popular figure who spoke at county high schools, boasting of his zero-tolerance policy for campus mischief, which he justified as necessary post-Columbine toughness.

But his sentences had nothing to do with guns or homicidal conspiracies. Off to jail went a girl who started a fake Myspace page to mock an administrator, a picked-on girl who threw a punch in the cafeteria - hundreds and hundreds of children in all.

Enough children to fill the new Luzerne County juvenile facility that Ciavarella had sought, and from which he and another judge, Michael Conahan, secretly profited.

A facility where the juveniles languished, sometimes emerging as maladjusted, angry, suicidal young adults - one former star wrestler, sent away for possessing drug paraphernalia, killed himself after enduring a 30-day stint that turned into many months with hardened criminals.

You meet some of these individuals in the course of "Kids for Cash," footage (from TV interviews) before and during their ordeal, and hear their horrifying debriefings years later (some still damaged and adrift).

You meet the lawyers at Philadelphia's Juvenile Law Center who uncovered the abuse and exposed a system in which families were told to bring their children to court without legal counsel, on the false promise that they would be treated leniently.

And yet, these are not the movie's most compelling interviews. The most riveting words come from the judges themselves, who unbelievably (out of view of their attorneys) agreed to sit down for lengthy interviews with director Robert May throughout the course of their prosecution.

What you see is like some ugly perfect storm of modern cultural regression - the compulsive "sharing" as a queasy plea for sympathy, the lack of moral intelligence, the solipsism.

Ciavarella still claims that he did nothing wrong. But we see that his actions, uncovered by an FBI investigation, show a guilt and shame his interviews do not.

Ciavarella and Conahan created multiple shell companies to move the money around and hide it from the IRS. Ciavarella says that when it came to the offered money, he had two choices - hide it or report it. Here's another choice, judge: Don't accept the payoff, and don't stock your profiteers' prison with children who were guilty, in many cases, of routine schoolyard mischief.

"Kids for Cash" stays doggedly fixed on the facts of these cases and this county. But you can see the argument that May quietly lays out: When you put the right (or wrong) financial incentives in place, money will start to drive decision-making.

It's just before the closing credits that May throws up statistics that make his case explicit: For-profit prisons create powerful money-driven forces that exist apart from the considerations of jurisprudence. From prudence of any kind.