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Kids for Ca$h
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by Jay Seaver

"Sad, somewhat scandalous."
3 stars

"Kids For Cash!" makes a great tabloid headline - heck, it looks good on a broadsheet when something akin to the scandal that this movie documents is discovered. It may not be the best title for this particular film, though - aside from only sharing the same subject as William Ecenbarger's similarly-titled book, it winds up limiting compared to the various issues that director Robert May brings up over the course of a somewhat scattered film.

That is the phrase that entered the public consciousness a few years ago, though, when Luzerne County, Pennsylvania judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael T. Conahan were accused of sending juvenile offenders to a correctional facility they had a financial interest in for minor offenses. The stories we hear from roughly a half-dozen of the hundreds of victims are terrible. There are, however, elements that may not exactly argue that there's another side to the story, but that the characterization of it as a simple transaction is not entirely accurate.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this movie is the way that May covers all of the angles, including ones that are seldom seen in the same film. Yes, he talks to a number of the kids who were imprisoned, as well as their parents, those involved in their defense, and the reporters who worked on the story for the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader. There are man-in-the-street (well, man-in-a-diner) interviews and visits to a local talk-radio show. But, fascinatingly, there is also plenty of face time with Ciavarella and Conahan; even though we see footage of one of the parents screaming at Ciavarella outside the courtroom about how her son is dead because of him, both parties participate in the film. It's almost disconcerting, given how "___ declined to be interviewed" is such a staple of the documentary where the focus might be even the slightest bit contentious.

Not that any attempt by Ciavarella to justify his actions is going to do a whole lot in the face of testimony from his victims. There are a lot to choose from, but five wind up on screen, all well-spoken and most determined enough to put their lost teen years behind them that it's almost a shame to refer to them as victims. Their words and voices sometimes betray that they're not the normal young adults they appear to be, but it's the parents who really bring out the anger and shame, since they feel like they should have known not to let their children appear without a lawyer, or that something else could have been done. Those bits are powerful segments, even if May generally only has a handful of still photos to use to compare the kids now to how they were before.

As dramatic as these particular stories are, though, there are times when using these former judges' trial as the movie's backbone may hurt the movie. That trial ultimately gets bogged down in whether Ciavarella was guilty of bribery or embezzlement, often missing a potentially more troubling point that is laid out in the film's opening moments: The people of Luzerne County elected Ciavarella because he specifically promised to throw the book at teenagers, giving out maximum sentences and trying them as adults whenever possible. Other references are made that point out a system which made abuse inevitable, but following the trial leads things toward kickbacks in a government construction project, not the injustices that are the movie's reason for being.

The movie is a bit sloppy in other ways; it puts graphics up on the screen that suggests its subjects spent their entire time in the system incarcerated but then talks about parole in somewhat nebulous terms, for instance. It uses visuals like a school model made out of construction paper that some viewers may see as trying too hard, even though even that crowd will have to admit that the devices are memorable. May's passion is never in doubt, though his organization could use some work.

Documentaries like "Kids for Cash" often ge a boost in acclaim because of the worthiness of their subjects, and that's not entirely unfair: Someone who watches this movie will learn something about the juvenile justice system and how these judges abused it for their own gain. It's a laudable goal that May accomplishes, even if there are areas that deserve a little more emphasis.

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originally posted: 01/21/14 10:19:05
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  07-Feb-2014 (PG-13)



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