Perhaps the most dramatic encounter in the “Kids for Cash” scandal — in which some 3,000 teenagers in central Pennsylvania were sent to private detention centers by a judge on the take from the contractor who built the facilities — came when Sandy Fonzo confronted the judge who threw the book at her 17-year-old son, Ed Kenzakoski, and began him on a journey through the criminal justice system that ended when he committed suicide at the age of 23.
“Do you remember me? Do you remember my son, an all-star wrestler? He’s gone. He shot himself in the heart,” Fonzo screamed at Judge Mark Ciavarella as he stood outside the federal courthouse in Scranton, Pa., after being convicted of taking $2.8 million in bribes from the builder of the PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care detention centers.
Part of what made the confrontation so memorable was that Ciavarella never responded to Fonzo, instead he turned his back and walked away with his lawyer. Little did anyone know that at this same time, the disgraced judge was breaking his silence in interviews with the director of a new film about the scandal.
Both Ciavarella and Judge Michael Conahan spent hours talking to filmmaker Robert May before they went to prison — for 28 and 17 years respectively. May pairs their version of what happened, and why, with that of the kids and parents who also lived through it, or in some cases, didn’t. The result is Kids for Cash, a new documentary film that offers new and important insight into how the scandal happened, and why it is not unique.
Some of May’s interviews with Conahan take place on a Florida beach where the former judge vacations before his sentence begins. We learn that Conahan was the financial mastermind of the scheme and it is somewhat cathartic to hear him admit his crimes. But it is May’s intimate exchanges with Ciavarella in his home office that provide the real tension.
“I wanted them to be scared out of their minds,” says the former juvenile judge who is seen earlier in the film addressing an auditorium full of high school students and telling them he would “send them away” if they appeared in his courtroom for a school-based infraction. Ciavarella stands by his allegiance to the “zero tolerance” approach for misbehaving youth, but you’ll have to watch the film to see if he ever admits to accepting money in return.
May avoids the common trap of being solely outraged about the bribery aspect of the Kids for Cash scandal by having the parents and teenagers tell their stories of how Ciavarella sent them away for weeks and months for minor infractions in order to teach them a lesson before they committed actual crimes.
One of the kids featured in the film, Hillary Transue, describes how she was 14 years old when school administrators called police to report that she had created a MySpace page mocking her assistant high school principal. Her mother was told she may receive a lighter punishment if she didn’t get a lawyer involved. But when Hillary appeared before Ciavarella he sentenced her to 3 months in a private juvenile detention center. She eventually won her release and was able to graduate from high school and go to college. May contrasts her success with most of the teens who share stories of struggling to complete their education and often wind up back in jail.
What emerges through such interviews is that even without the financial gain Ciavarella incurred, his zero-tolerance polices were devastating and should be reevaluated.
Kids for Cash is set to hit movie theaters at the same time the Obama administration’s Justice Department has called for reforms to policies that have contributed to the criminalization of students, known as the “school-to-prison pipeline.” While the young people featured in the film are all white, it is widely recognized that the majority of those impacted are African American and Latino.
A recent report by the Vera Institute of Justice that examined 25 years of research on zero-tolerance policies meant to deter drug use and violence in schools found that “neither schools nor young people have benefitted.” Instead, they suffered “significant adverse effects,” including severe disruption of students’ academic progress. The report also notes research that shows staying in school can “help to prevent young people from engaging in delinquency and crime.”
One of the most disturbing aspects of Kids for Cash is that everyone — from the bailiffs to the transcriptionists to the prosecutors — who worked in the courtroom where Ciavarella held sway stayed quiet about the injustices that were routinely being meted out. It was business as usual. Only when one of the parents stumbled upon a group of activist lawyers in Philadelphia did the scandal come to light.
Ideally this riveting film will be seen by those curious or concerned about the workings of our criminal justice system, and focus further attention on the lives of the kids that can still be salvaged if zero-tolerance policies are reformed.
Renée Feltz is a producer and criminal justice correspondent for Democracy Now!.
Kids for Cash debuts in New York on February 28 at the Village AMC 7 and Empire 25 AMC. For more information, see kidsforcashthemovie.com.