The new documentary Kids For Cash borrows its snappy title from the 2008 judicial scandal it examines—or, more accurately, from the countless headlines and news stories said scandal inspired. Yet there’s little sensationalism, and even less yellow journalism, to this thoughtful glance backward at a purported miscarriage of justice. The case made blood boil the nation over: Two judges, one notoriously tough on the juvenile defendants that entered his courtroom, were accused of taking kickbacks in return for convictions, effectively “selling” underage inmates to a for-profit detention center. Given his tendency to impose the maximum sentence on first-time offenders, even when their crime was as moderate as mocking a school administrator on Myspace, judge Mark Ciavarella made for a perfectly detestable tabloid villain. And Kids For Cash, which puts a human, tear-streaked face on the story, initially seems designed to provoke even more outrage. But after a stage-setting opening passage, director Robert May cuts deeper—past the allegations of wrongdoing, to a more multi-faceted critique of the justice system.
There is, of course, a certain poetic justice to seeing a hard-ass judge, famous for locking up scared teenagers and throwing away the key, being put at the mercy of the courts. Bitter ironies aside, the film skirts schadenfreude by giving Ciavarella something close to the benefit of the doubt. Shot while the trial was still going on, Kids For Cash approaches heated material with much more clear-headed reason than the judge often practiced, affording everyone—the damaged ex-delinquents, their parents, the accused—an opportunity to speak. That apparent impartiality must have convinced Ciavarella that it was safe to open up to the camera, even after his lack of public remorse cost him a plea bargain. The disgraced magistrate, who was eventually sentenced to 28 years in prison, denies culpability, clinging to the slightly dubious assertion that his harsh verdicts were made independent of the money he received (and didn’t claim on his taxes). Resisting the urge to demonize further, May entertains the man’s claims of innocence, even pointing to a history of unforgiving rulings—many predating his involvement with the owners of the juvenile facility—as potential proof that his decisions were never financially motivated. There are, it eventually becomes clear, bigger fish to fry.
Stylistically speaking, Kids For Cash is a little lacking: Too often does the film pilfer from the Errol Morris strategy, lingering on slow-motion shots of falling gavels and a giant, lost-innocence diorama, and bombastically ending with that child-choir cover of “Creep” that belongs (now and forever) to the trailer for The Social Network. But May’s muckraking instincts are rock solid. If he goes easy on Ciavarella, it’s because he seems to believe that the man’s real crime—independent of any monetary incentive, any rationale—was throwing the book at these kids. The director uses his infamous case as a pretext to dive into the sorry state of the juvenile justice system, demonstrating how it destroys lives by tossing young offenders into a criminal environment and trapping them in a cycle of transgression and incarceration. (Once in the system, many kids never get out of it.) What May is really after, in other words, is a glimpse at a post-Columbine America, where punishments don’t always fit crimes, cures are often worse than diseases, and the courts are frequently being used as a catchall solution to very normal discipline problems. Kids For Cash may express unlikely empathy for a man convicted in the court of public opinion, but it saves its real compassion for the grieving mother who confronts him—in the film’s most powerful scene—for his lack of the same. Bribes or no bribes, zero tolerance leaves few survivors.