Thursday, February 27, 2014

Corruption in the juvenile justice system

Director Robert May's documentary, Kids for Cash , tells the shocking story of a Pennsylvania judge who funneled thousands of kids into a juvenile detention center while profiting financially from his time on the bench. Initially regarded as a tough but respected jurist, Mark Ciavarella became a focal point for outrage when it was disclosed that he received a $2.2 million payoff (a supposed "finder's fee") from the builders of a new detention center in Luzerne County, Pa. The "Kids for Cash" scandal, which erupted in 2009, took place in the wake of the Zero Tolerance attitude toward school violence that developed after the shootings at Columbine. May's documentary isn't perfect: Shots of cut-out figures of children add a needlessly arty touch, and May can't totally liberate his movie from talking-heads monotony. But the facts of the story have undeniable power: We learn about young people who did significant jail time for offenses that easily could have been handled in other ways: abusing someone on MySpace or fighting at school, for example. Ciavarella, who eventually was sentenced to a 28-year prison term himself, appears in the movie. He never expresses any real understanding that his draconian brand of justice wreaked needless havoc on many young lives. He does, howeover, admit to a lapse in judgment about the "finder's fee," saying he sought financial security for his family. If you're interested in learning more about the juvenile justice system, May's documentary isn't a bad place to start. The above photo shows a distraught mother screaming at Ciavarella. Her son's downward spiral began with Ciavarella's judgment and culminated in the young man's suicide.

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