Kidnapping a minor is a crime, but imprisoning a 14-year-old boy until age 19 for unknowingly riding a stolen scooter is justice. That was fair and right to Mark Ciavarella, a Pennsylvania judge known for his 60-second trials, and in whose courtroom defendants were pressured to forgo an attorney.
Ciavarella’s other victims include 14-year-old Amanda, who lost five years of her adolescence, and 12-year-old Justin, who ended up spending seven years in jail, both for fighting in school.
“I wanted them to be scared out of their minds,” Ciavarella explains in director Robert May’s “Kids for Cash,” a vital, urgent and infuriating look at the devastating failures of the juvenile court system and the insidious reach of prison privatization.
As the documentary’s title suggests, Ciavarella’s sins don’t end with outrageously disproportionate sentencing. Rather, Ciavarella gained notoriety nationwide when he was convicted of racketeering in 2011 for taking a $1-million kickback from builders of a for-profit lockup.
Ciavarella’s personal interviews humanize him as a family man, but May rightly focuses on the then-children, now young adults, whose futures were derailed by a venal ideologue. Unlike the majority of her imprisoned peers, Amanda eventually graduates from high school, but she has to take post-traumatic stress disorder meds to get through the ceremony.
“Kids for Cash.” MPAA rating: PG-13 for mature themes and language. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes. At Laemmle’s NoHo 7, North Hollywood.