Jailed for money

A new doc­u­men­tary ex­plores the tragic uS ‘Kids For Cash’ kick­back scan­dal.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - INSIGHT - By MARYCLAIRE DALE

CHAR­LIE Balasav­age, a baby-faced boy of 14, landed in ju­ve­nile de­ten­tion af­ter his par­ents bought him a stolen scooter. Hil­lary Transue was sent away over a MyS­pace par­ody of her vice prin­ci­pal. Justin Bod­nar was locked up for mouthing off to a woman at his school bus stop.

They are just three among thou­sands of youths whose lives were de­railed by a cor­rupt Penn­syl­va­nia judge, a post-Columbine fer­vour for zero-tol­er­ance poli­cies and a se­cre­tive ju­ve­nile court sys­tem, a story de­tailed in a new doc­u­men­tary Kids For Cash.

“I wanted them to be scared out of their minds. I don’t un­der­stand how that’s a bad thing,” dis­graced for­mer judge Mark Ci­avarella says in the film, which chron­i­cles the abu­sive prac­tices – and kick­back scan­dal – that fes­tered be­hind closed doors at his Wilkes-Barre court­room. The film pre­miered last Wed­nes­day in Philadel­phia and a na­tion­wide re­lease would fol­low soon.

Ci­avarella is serv­ing a 28-year sen­tence – and fel­low ex-judge Michael Con­a­han, 17 years – for tak­ing US$2.6mil (RM8.63mil) from com­pa­nies look­ing to build and fill a youth de­ten­tion cen­tre for Luzerne County. Chil­dren as young as 10 were hand­cuffed and shack­led with­out so much as a chance to say good­bye to their fam­i­lies. The scan­dal was widely la­beled “Kids for Cash”, though the judges deny any such quid pro quo.

“I never sent a kid away for a penny. I’m not this mad judge who was just putting them in shack­les, throw­ing kids away,” says Ci­avarella, who jailed petty of­fend­ers long be­fore the kick­back scheme and was ap­plauded by school ad­min­is­tra­tors and the pub­lic.

The Kafka-es­que sto­ries of chil­dren he re­moved from home af­ter five-minute hear­ings, with no de­fence lawyers in court, have been told in news ac­counts, law­suits and in­ves­tiga­tive hear­ings since the scan­dal broke in 2008. The film fol­lows five teens as they try to re­build their lives. Once in the ju­ve­nile court sys­tem, most cy­cled in and out of cus­tody for years.

“He went there as a free-spir­ited kid. He came out a hard­ened man,” Sandy Fonzo says wist­fully of her son.

Di­rec­tor Robert May, who pro­duced the Os­car-win­ning doc­u­men­tary Fog Of War and The Sta­tion Agent, won the trust of the fallen judges, who se­cretly met with him as their case played out. He felt their co­op­er­a­tion was cru­cial to give the film bal­ance and dra­matic ten­sion.

“No one wants to go see a preachy film,” said May, who works in New York City but lives in Luzerne County with his wife and chil­dren. “I am proud ev­ery time some­body says they have em­pa­thy for the judges, or it screws up ev­ery­thing they thought they knew (about the case).”

He por­trays the judges as ar­ro­gant and de­tached but still hu­man. Ci­avarella, a bully on the bench, qui­etly re­flects on his stern childhood and midlife de­sire to leave his fam­ily fi­nan­cially se­cure.

Much of the film­ing takes place in win­ter, when the rugged north-east­ern Penn­syl­va­nia land­scape feels es­pe­cially bleak. It’s a world away from the bril­liant sun­shine of South Florida, where the wealthy Con­a­han is in­ter­viewed – at a con­do­minium bought with money fun­neled from the youth cen­tre de­vel­op­ers – as he pre­pares to go to prison.

“Un­doubt­edly, there will be peo­ple who will walk out of the the­atre think­ing maybe they weren’t re­ally guilty,” Mar­sha Le­vick, chief coun­sel of the Ju­ve­nile Law Center in Philadel­phia, said. “They’re guilty of many things. Some of that is nu­anced.”

The film ex­plores why other adult stake­hold­ers – in­clud­ing pros­e­cu­tors, pub­lic de­fend­ers, school of­fi­cials and pro­ba­tion of­fi­cers – stayed silent. The film­maker sees it as part of a larger prob­lem.

“Push­ing kids into the ju­ve­nile sys­tem will never pro­duce bet­ter out­comes than keep­ing them in their schools and in their com­mu­ni­ties and with their fam­i­lies,” said Le­vick, whose work helped over­turn thou­sands of Ci­avarella’s ju­ve­nile con­vic­tions and who ap­pears as a lead voice in the film. “Th­ese are not warm and fuzzy places.” – AP

A mother’s rage: Sandy Fonzo con­fronting for­mer judge Mark Ci­avarella Jr in Fe­bru­ary 2011. Her son, who was jailed when he was 17 by Ci­avarella, com­mit­ted sui­cide at age 23.

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