“At one point, I swore over my dead body I wouldn't name the movie 'Kids for Cash',” Robert May said, “but obviously I'm still alive.” That was May's answer to the first question I asked during an interview on Tuesday at Wilkes-Barre Movies 14. The Oscar winning director was engaging and extremely knowledgeable on his subject.
The problem with the “Kids for Cash” title according to May was that it was inaccurate, and he didn't want his documentary to be one sided, like most of the media coverage of the event since it began. The original title was “Zero Tolerance,” and the director also considered the title “Twisted Justice.”
"Just Google 'Kids for Cash,'” May said, "and you will find Judge Ciavarella." He said the term that has become synonymous with the scandal, and he thus reluctantly agreed to use that as the title for the documentary which is airing locally and in select theaters across the country.
May stressed that he wanted to do a film about the scandal that told both sides of the story. “Media coverage tended to be very one sided. They stressed the 'kids for cash' angle, almost to the exclusion of anything else.” He said that although the first thirty minutes of the film are primarily the stories of the juveniles, the film moves onto a more in depth analysis of how the scandal was allowed to happen.
Luzerne County Juvenile Scandal
The Luzerne County juvenile scandal broke about five years ago when it came to light that former Judges Michael Conahan and Mark Ciavarella had taken in excess of $2 million from developer Robert Mericle as a finder's fee for the construction of a new juvenile detention center in Luzerne County. Ciavarella and Conahan are currently serving long jail terms after, in Ciavarella's case being found guilty, and in Conahan's case pleading guilty to federal charges of tax fraud, money laundering, and related charges.
What made the juvenile scandal capture national attention was the fact that there was an attempt to draw a nexus between the money taken and Ciavarella's "zero tolerance" policy and his incarceration rates. Ciavarella also had a reputation for swift justice, where many of the juveniles where not represented by lawyers. This became a recipe for certain members of the media to report that Ciavarella jailed "kids for cash."
He said that corruption in the judicial system is nationwide, and that he believes there are many other place where corruption is worst than Luzerne County. “Luzerne County," May said, "contrary to what some people think, is not the most corrupt area in the nation.”
“I've screened the movie all over the country, and the zero tolerance policies are commonplace in many areas,” May said. “I spoke to a judge in Washington D.C. After he saw a screening, he said 'I've done that. I've placed juveniles for that.” But what made Luzerne County unique and such a compelling story, according to May, was that there were allegations that the very judge who was sentencing the juveniles profited from one of the detention centers where he placed the children.
Audiences have sympathy for Ciavarella
“Fifty percent of the movie audience members surveyed have empathy for Ciavarella,” May said as he explained how screening audiences reacted to the movie. He twenty five percent are adamant in their belief that Ciavarella jailed “kids for cash.” The remaining quarter of the audiences were mixed in their reactions.
“The movie has started a discussion about the logic behind zero tolerance policies,” May said, “People are questioning whether zero tolerance is really such a good idea.”
May has said in the past and reiterated to the Examiner that one of the keys to the success of the documentary was his ability to get the former judges to agree to be interviewed. Both Conahan and Ciavarella agreed to interviews, without consent of their attorneys, and on the condition that the interviews would not be made public until after their respective sentencings.
Since the interviews for the film with the former judges, May has not had any further contact with the judges.
May won an Oscar for "The Fog of War"
May started around 2000 in the documentary film business, and since then has produced a number of documentary films, including "Stevie," "The Fog of War," "The War Tapes," and "The Station Agent." "The Fog of War" won the Academy Award for Best Documentary.
The movie is currently playing in seven theaters, but opens in five more this week. Eventually the movie will be shown at over 150 theaters nationwide. May also said that he hopes to win a second Oscar for “Kids for Cash” when the movie is considered for Best Documentary at next year's Academy Awards.
May resides in Dallas, Pennsylvania with his family and is a big fan of maple syrup.