PHILADELPHIA (AP) — 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 fervor 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 premieres Wednesday in Philadelphia before opening in theaters nationwide.
Ciavarella is serving a 28-year sentence – and fellow ex-judge Michael Conahan 17 years – for taking $2.6 million from companies looking to build and fill a youth detention center 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 defense 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 northeastern 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 center developers – as he prepares to go to prison.
“Undoubtedly, there will be people who will walk out of the theater thinking maybe they weren’t really guilty,” Marsha Levick, chief counsel of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, said last week. “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.
“As a society, as soon as someone’s accused of something, we say they’re guilty,” May said.
The film may underplay the teens’ family, school or emotional problems as it mines the perils of juvenile placement. But it makes clear that incarceration is rarely an effective cure.
“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.”