Documentary “Kids for Cash” shows how Judge Ciavarella scandal unfolded

Dylan Haviland – General Assignment Reporter 

Charlie Balasavage stared back at the screen, the gentle and kind looking young man told the story of his incarceration. He recalled how his parents had bought him a moped, unfortunately neither of them knew that the vehicle itself was stolen. Two weeks in, someone noticed that the moped was missing property and police soon arrived and took in Balasavage. In the Luzerne County, Pennsylvania court of law, President Judge Mark Ciavarella, Jr. gave him a sentence of four years and ten months. Balasavage was fourteen years old.

The documentary, “Kids for Cash” directed by Robert May tells the story of a scandal surrounding Ciavarella a formerly respected but harsh judge in Luzerne County.  The scandal shook the foundations of the court system for juveniles, destroyed Ciavarella’s career and ultimately ruined the lives of countless youths.

May begins the film by introducing audiences to an America shaken by the Columbine shootings.  In the aftermath, the country has to look to new ways to face juvenile crime.  One such judge, newly elected Ciavarella tackles the issue of adolescent delinquency head on.

His authoritative stance sentenced countless of children to juvenile detention centers for minor infractions.  At a certain point critics were praising the judge for how he was seeking to better society.

“As judge if given the opportunity to try a juvenile offender as an adult, I will.  If you’re a teen and convicted of murder, rape or violent crimes against our children or the elderly, you can expect that I will impose the maximum sentence allowed by law,” said Ciavarella in an opening scene depicting one of his old commercials.

The film takes a dark turn as the exact details of the scandal slowly unfold.  Ciavarella and fellow judge Michael Conahan were accused of taking money from privately owned juvenile detention centers, sending the children they prosecuted to them.

The new twist takes the documentary on a morbid and eye opening journey that exposes the injustices in the court systems that citizens trust.

“Kids for Cash” carefully examines several of the children detained by the judge’s decision, creating an intense and personal level with the victims.  These children of Luzerne County, many now young adults demand the audience’s attention to the injustices done to them.

The process of the children’s incarceration is explained in depth: from courthouse, to detention center, to freedom where they are thrusted back into the world.

May’s painstaking attention to detail and level of information creates a well-documented film.

A large portion of the documentary includes interviews with Ciavarella and Conahan.  The accounts present a rare window to the other side of the vicious events.  Ciavarella goes into detail to the audience on his personal life, moral code for prosecuting and insides shots of his family days before his trail.

Technically, the film is quite impressive with smooth transitions between stories of the past and the trail being held in the present.  The stories of the children are masterfully woven into Ciavarella’s personal accounts, creating an evenly represented document.

Eventually Ciavarella and Conahan are charged with multiple accounts of fraud and sentenced to many years in jail, but what the documentary emphasizes is that lives continue on and have to manage after tragedies.  Ciavarella is put away but at a cost of his broken family and life.  The children themselves are left in world they were deprived of for so long and the memories of a past without a childhood.

Photo Credit: Lambda Chi Alpha Fraternity 


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