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"Kids for Cash" is an indictment of zero tolerance

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If you expect to see Mark Ciavarella accepting envelopes of cash from Robert Mericle in the new documentary movie "Kids for Cash", you will have to look elsewhere. The movie, which premiers this Friday, is a new documentary from Luzerne County hometown producer/director Robert May which chronicles the Luzerne County juvenile center corruption case and is a must-see for anyone who followed these events over the last five years.

"Kids for Cash" is much more of an indictment of the zero tolerance policy employed by many juvenile court systems throughout the country than it is an indictment of former Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella, who has become the man synonymous with the phrase "kids for cash."

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. Ciavarella instituted just such a policy when he became the Luzerne County juvenile judge in the late 1990s.

Ciavarella initially ran on a get tough on crime platform when he was elected to his first 10 year term as a Common Pleas Court judge in Luzerne County. In fact, May chose a 1995 "get tough on crime" television commercial from Ciavarella's initial successful judge campaign to start the film. In the commercial, Ciavarella talks about trying juveniles as adults and giving out the maximum sentence.

Ciavarella's zero tolerance policy was very popular among school administrators, police, and prosecutors. It was so popular that school administrators throughout Luzerne County invited the no-nonense Judge Ciavarella to give "scared straight" talks to their students every year. The policy also had wide support among the general public in Luzene County and throughout the country

The movie follows the bigger than life story of the Luzerne County juvenile corruption scandal. Both former Judges Ciavarella and Michael Conahan gave interviews for the movie, along with a number of former juveniles who found themselves in the Luzerne County criminal system. The film also has some very nice aerial views of the Luzerne County Court House.

The Ciavarella and Conahan interviews took place some years ago, before Ciavarella's trial and Conahan's guilty plea. They are certainly the highlights of the documentary.

Whereas the Conahan interviews play a smaller part in the movie and tend to be more matter of fact, Ciavarella's interviews play a large part in the movie. They also show Ciavarella as a man who admits his wrongs (tax evasion, violating the public trust, and similar conduct) but vehemently denies he every jailed a single kid for cash. He comes across as sincerely sorry for the mistakes he made and the fact that his family must live with the publicity and mistakes long into the future.

Terrie Morgan-Besecker, a former reporter for the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader and now with the Scranton Times-Tribune, covered the juvenile scandal and the trial of Ciavarella. She plays a prominent role in the movie as the interviewee who gives the play-by-play of how the Ciavarella case evolved. Morgan-Besecker also offers two of the film's most thought provoking comments. She says that only Mark Ciavarella knows if he took "kids for cash," because the federal prosecutors never brought any quid pro quo charges before the jury, and she also emphatically states that "Ciavarella's incarceration rate was always high," even before the new juvenile center was built.

The juvenile corruption scandal came to be known as "kids for cash" when the scandal broke into the news about five years ago. Former President Judges of Luzerne County Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan were indicted in federal court for accepting money from developer Robert Mericle, who built a new juvenile center in Pittston Township to replace the aging and condemned Luzerne County juvenile center in Wilkes-Barre.

Conahan and Ciavarella received over $2 million, which they claimed they had earned as a "finders fee" for steering the building of the juvenile center to Mericle. It is interesting to note, as the film points out, that Mericle was the low bidder for the project. Former attorney, prominent Hazleton businessman, and personal friend of Conahan, Robert Powell was also indicted as the owner of the facility.

Local and national media jumped on the story, because it involved children and many of the characters were quite vocal. Before long, stories came to light of children who received stiff jail sentences for even minor offenses, prompting people to believe that Ciavarella and Conahan received some sort of monetary reward for sending juveniles to PA Child Care.

Many of the self-serving stories of the juveniles and parents downplayed the criminal behavior of the juveniles, which helped portray Ciavarella as a monster who drove around like the child catcher in "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" capturing children and throwing them in jail for a quid pro quo payoff from the owner of the juvenile facility.

The problem with that version of the "truth" was that it isn't true. As "Kids for Cash" rightly illustrates, and in contrast to the views and opinions of various local and even national media figures, neither Ciavarella nor Conahan profited directly from the incarceration of a single child. Conahan and Ciavarella did accept a "finder's fee" from Mericle and failed to report it as income or on their judicial financial disclosure forms, but they were never charged nor ever convicted of a quid pro quo.

Conahan ended up pleading guilty to lesser charges and is currently spending his incarceration time at a federal prison in Florida. Conahan received a sentence of 17 and a half years. Ciavarella stood his ground, and until this day maintains that he never accepted a bribe or kickback and that he never accepted any money for the incarceration of a single juvenile. The facts support Ciavarella's version. See the Top Nine Myths of the Ciavarella case.

Even Judge Edwin Kosik, the Middle District federal judge who heard both Conahan and Ciavarella's cases, fell victim to the "kids for cash" hysteria when he rejected a plea agreement whereby Ciavarella and Conahan would have plead to lesser charges and served less than 8 years in prison.

When Ciavarella took his case to trial, the jury basically convicted Ciavarella for failure to report and pay income tax on the money he received from Mericle. He was acquitted of 27 out of 39 charges, including the more serious charges of extortion and racketeering. He is currently serving a 28 year sentence at a correctional facility in Illinois.

"Kids for Cash" premieres on Friday, February 7th at both Cinemark in Moosic and Movies 14 in Wilkes-Barre.

Robert May is the Director/Producer/Founder of SenArt Films. He has produced "The Station Agent," "The War Tapes," and "Bonneville." He won an Academy Award as executive producer of "Fog of War." May resides with his family in the Back Mountain section of Luzerne County.

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