"Kids for Cash" has something for everyone. This was readily apparent at WILK New Radio's screening of the movie at Cinemark, Moosic on Monday evening. A crowd of about 100 people attended the event which featured a question and answer period by the film's director and producer, Robert May of Dallas, Pennsylvania.
Whether you believe the widely discredited "kids for cash" theory that juveniles were jailed for direct monetary payments or whether you have come to realize the excesses of zero tolerance policies, "Kids for Cash" will fulfill your wishes.
The movie which documents the juvenile court scandal of the the past five years in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania has received very good reviews for telling at least both sides of the story. The Examiner's review of "Kids for Cash" found that the movie is not so much about the Luzerne County scandal as it is an indictment of the zero tolerance policy employed by many juvenile courts throughout the nation.
Zero tolerance is a policy whereby judges impose sometimes severe sentences for even minor infractions. This policy became popular after the Columbine, Colorado school shooting in 1999. Former juvenile Judge Mark Ciavarella instituted just such a policy when he became the Luzerne County juvenile judge in the late 1990s and after campaigning on a get tough on crime platform.
May was joined in the question and answer period by WILK's Steve Corbett and Hillary Transue. Transue is one of the five juveniles featured in the film. Transue became involved in the Luzerne County juvenile system when she was arrested for creating a fake MySpace page lampooning her school's vice principal. She was one of about 3000 juveniles who were incarcerated during Ciavarella's ten year plus tenure as Luzerne County's juvenile judge. Transue has now graduated from college and is pursuing a teaching career.
May fielded questions about the movie from audience members and continued to stress the nationwide use of zero tolerance policies in the juvenile system. He said such use of zero tolerance policies were not unique to Luzerne County or even Pennsylvania, but their usage came to light when Ciavarella and former President Judge Michael Conahan were charged for basically accepting a $2.3 million "finder's fee" by local developer Robert Mericle for the construction of a new juvenile facility.
May said that if it had not been for the indictments of the two judges and the allegation that there was some nexus between the judges accepting the finder's fee and the jailing of juveniles, that his film may have never been made. It was these allegations, which according to May have never been proven, brought the scorn on the widely popular zero tolerance policies of the Luzerne County court system.
"Nobody seemed to have a problem with the policy," May said, "until it came to light that Conahan and Ciavarella had accepted money for building the new juvenile center."
Transue fielded a question about why she decided to return to the area to pursue a teaching career. She emphasized May's point that the problems of Luzerne County are not exclusive to Luzerne County. She explained how she has traveled throughout the United States, primarily to tell her story, and she came to realize that judicial excesses, over zealous juvenile punishments, and corruption are a national problem.
Corbett, on the other hand, represents the court of opinion that believes that the Luzerne County juvenile scandal was, is, and always will be a story of "kids for cash." He also reiterated his conspiracy theory that almost everyone in the juvenile system, from the judges to the attorneys to the court staff to juvenile probation officers was "in on it."
In his characteristic "demon under every rock" mantra, Corbett argued that a cash driven conspiracy existed during Ciavarella's tenure and still exists today. In support of his theory, Corbett cited an example of how Mericle's wife gave current Luzerne County juvenile Judge William Amesbury a $500 campaign contribution, and that some court personnel serve on the board of the Wilkes-Barre YMCA, which gives an award named after Mericle.