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Kids for Cash (2014)

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STORYLINE


Deeply shocking and continually surprising, “Kids for Cash” examines the scandal surrounding a Pennsylvania judge’s draconian imprisonment of kids for minor hijinks, in exchange for kickbacks from a juvenile detention center. Helmer Robert May sometimes lessens the impact of his points through overemphasis; a tighter edit of this 104-minute documentary might boost its dramatic momentum and widen its appeal. Still, the film represents a scathing critique of America’s juvenile justice system, the privatization of penal institutions, and the whole notion of “zero tolerance.”

As May’s docu makes clear though testimonials and newspaper headlines, juvenile court judge Mark Ciavarella was once highly respected by the Pennsylvania community he served. In the widespread paranoia that followed the Columbine shootings, his hugely disproportionate sentencing — five or six years in lockup for a small-scale offenses that normally would have merited visits to the principal and/or three-day suspensions — was seen as a positive step toward making schools safer. Mark Ciavarella is shown warning students what they can expect if they deviate even slightly from the straight and narrow, any disregard of this warning providing sufficient reason for immediate incarceration.

John Paino’s production design somewhat artificially revs up the pathos with atmospheric cutaways to low-lit, stick-and-paper figures of children and homemade dollhouses against a gloomy backdrop. Lined-up dossiers and stacks of portfolios illustrate segments of voiceover, while reams of typewritten data recount the manifold inconsistencies and dubious practices visited upon those who wound up in Ciavarella’s court.


IMDB (7.1)

Kids for cash scandal @ Wikipedia