It may not be what you think.
The harrowing new documentary "Kids for Cash" is, among other things, a cautionary tale about where privatization leads.
In excruciating detail, director Robert May lays bare the complex, sinister scheme advanced by two judges and a private prison in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania.
Judge Michael Conahan helped shutdown a decrepit publicly owned juvenile detention facility and to get it replaced with a private outlet owned by investors of the Pennsylvania Child Care. This led to a twenty-year lease of Pennsylvania Child Care's private for-profit Pittston Township detention center for $58 million paid for with taxpayer dollars. As part of this backdoor deal Conahan colluded with his colleague on the bench, Mark Ciavarella.
Having facilitated the establishment of the new facility these judges proceeded to supply the demand for heads in the beds (which, the doc asserts, sometimes came minus pillows). Luzerne County's imprisonment rate for children and teenagers was 25 percent -- more than two and half times the statewide average. During the judges' reign of error, thousands of young people were incarcerated.
Cultivating a tough-o-crime image and raising the bar on pomposity, Ciavarella actually bore the title of "President Judge." The Columbine school shooting provided a pretext for the justices' "zero-tolerance for crime" campaign against youngsters. Instead of slapping them on their wrists, the hanging judges proceeded to mete out rough justice in the form of stiff sentences, even for minor infractions the juveniles were charged with. More than half of the young defendants and their parents were hoodwinked into waiving the right of legal representation by an attorney, which enabled Ciavarella to impose incarceration upon them.
With archival footage and original interviews, "Kids for Cash" tells the stories of five youths whom Ciavarella threw the book at and how this affected the beleaguered defendants and their families.
After Charlie Balasavage's parents bought him a red scooter it was discovered that it had previously been stolen. After his visit to Ciavarella's court, the 14-year-old went on to spend five years in the correctional system.
Twelve-year-old Justin Bodnar's use of obscenities in a squabble with another pupil's mother led to seven years inside of the juvenile injustice system.
For making a fake MySpace page ridiculing her high school's assistant principal, Hillary Transue was sentenced to three months in a juvenile detention center, her First Amendment rights be damned.
And so on.
Some suffer the lasting effects of having had their childhoods and teenage years, as well as much of their educations, robbed from them.
As one tearful mother cries in the film, she points out that instead of these being their "good old days," their youthful memories will always be marred by having served hard time behind bars.
In the case of 17-year-old Ed Kenzakoski, who was already troubled, his trip to Ciavarella's kangaroo court led to a downward spiral that resulted in Kenzakoski's shooting himself in the heart.
In Francois Truffaut's 1959 French New Wave classic "The 400 Blows," the troubled Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is sent to reform school because of the boy's mischievous behavior.
But behind Conahan and Ciavarella's law and order stance was more than just an overzealous preoccupation with rules, regulations and school safety. These judges had a corrupt motive: Pennsylvania Child Care and a sister company paid them $2.6 million. These payoffs were rationalized as being "finder's fees."
However, as the truth emerged and local investigative reporter Terrie Morgan-Besecker and talk show host Steve Corbett, along with the Juvenile Law Center, sounded the alarm, the public perception was that these "finder's fees" were actually kickbacks and bribes to the judges for helping to close a public facility and replace it with a private for-profit lockup, which they proceeded to supply with cannon fodder in the form of children and teenagers.
Both judges are serving time in federal prison for racketeering.
The documentary's most powerful, poignant moment is footage of Ciavarella outside of the courthouse. As his legal mouthpiece ballyhoos his client Kenzakoski's enraged mother, Sandy Fonzo, who is in the crowd, loses it. In front of the cameras Fonzo screams at the judge, "You ruined my life," denouncing Ciavarella with the kind of language that once landed Justin Bodnar a seven-year stint in the hoosegow.
What makes "Kids for Cash" especially compelling is the fact that, rather remarkably, both Conahan and Ciavarella agreed to appear before May's camera.
In an instance of falling out among thieves, Ciavarella gripes with astonishment that Conhan sold him out and lied to him. The strict judge reveals that in addition to venality he had another reason for his crime and punishment zealotry. Ciavarella's own father had been a harsh disciplinarian -- if not an abusive parent, which left its mark on his vindictive son who'd repeat this cycle countless times while sitting on the bench.
May's documentary is, for the most part, shot in a very straightforward manner. Unlike documentarians such as Moore May does not appear in the film, and there is no narration per se (although an artsy ending sequence includes titles with some shocking statistics about America's high rate of child incarceration and more). In one of the most effective scenes specifically shot for "Kids for Cash," Conahan is musing about the punishment he faces while the Pennsylvanian traipses around a tropical beach in Florida, which he loves. The contrast between his words and the beauty Conahan enjoys prior to his imprisonment is very effective.
"Kids for Cash" is May's directorial debut and living proof that in America, the highest court of appeal is the documentary. Previously May produced nonfiction and fiction films, including Errol Morris's Oscar-winning 2003 "The Fog of War," about the Vietnam era Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, and the award winning 2006 Iraq War documentary "The War Tapes." May's features include 2003's "The Station Agent" with Peter Dinklage, who went on to co-star in the hit HBO series "Game of Thrones." According to press notes, May stumbled upon the subject matter for "Kids for Cash" by virtue of the fact that he lives where the scandal unfolded.
"Kids for Cash" opens with a startling title stating that along with Somalia and South Sudan, the U.S. is the only member of the United Nations, which has not signed the U.N.'s Declaration of the Rights of the Child. For a nation that likes to pat itself on its own back for purportedly upholding "family values," as this documentary reveals, American hypocrisy regarding the well-being of our youngest residents -- from cutbacks in food stamps to a corrupt judiciary -- is jaw-dropping. In its own way, Robert May's dismaying "Kids for Cash" is as much of a haunting portrait of childhood lost as Truffaut's "The 400 Blows."
"Kids for Cash" opens in New York on Feb. 28 and in L.A. on March 7.
L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell co-authored "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book."