City Paper grade: B+
However uncouth a barometer it may be, you know a story has achieved national relevance once it’s been immortalized by Law & Order: SVU. The splashy Luzerne County-based scandal that came to be known as “kids for cash” earned that dubious distinction in 2009, in an episode starring Swoosie Kurtz as an evil judge bribed to send undeserving youths to for-profit detention centers. The show offered an oversimplified version of the story; the reality is much more dramatic and complex, as Robert May’s stone-faced documentary proves.
In 2008, allegations of kids-for-cash corruption began surfacing in Wilkes-Barre, prompting an investigation led by the Philly-based Juvenile Law Center, which uncovered evidence that judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan had been handing down heavy sentences to minors accused of comparatively benign crimes. Kids accused of shoplifting, verbal spats or online mischief were coerced into waiving counsel and thrown into newly constructed juvenile lockups to serve multiple years. The “cash” part of the equation came into play via Robert Mericle, the builder of these facilities, who paid Ciavarella and Conahan seven-figure “finder’s fees” for their assistance in helping the projects get off the ground. The subsequent mishandling and concealment of these funds is the criminal heart of the saga, and May sniffs out the money trail with devastating clarity.
In interviews with victims and their families, the first-time director, who previously produced The Fog of War and The War Tapes, coaxes out details that humanize the outrage. Hamstrung by a manipulative justice system and, in many cases, already disadvantaged, these citizens had no recourse, and some came out permanently wounded. But it’s May’s sitdowns with Ciavarella himself that prove most disquieting. Contrite in a cold, contractual sense, the judge insists his actions were philosophically motivated, making his claims that “people didn’t know how to be parents” with a chilling sense of sanctimony. It’s never clear how honest he’s being, which renders May’s exploration of his choices that much more disturbing.
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