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"Whatever sins you have committed, you can't go back and undo them," - Mark Ciavarella
It was one of the most shocking stories of judicial corruption in American history, and now the full story of Pennsylvania judge Mark Ciavarella is being told in a documentary film, "Kids for Cash." Ciavarella was convicted in 2011 on 12 counts of racketeering and fraud for accepting kickbacks in exchange for sentencing young people to a private, for-profit juvenile detention center.
Watch the exclusive trailer premiere for 'Kids for Cash':
Ciavarella and fellow judge Michael Conahan sat on the Luzerne County Court in Wilkes-Barre, PA, and in 2002 the pair made a deal with private prison developer Robert J. Powell to fill his detention facilities with young offenders. While he publicly was fostering an image of being tough on crime, in reality he was handing out harsh sentences for minor infractions. The county had a conviction rate for young people that was ten times higher than that of the rest of Pennsylvania. All told, Ciavarella and Conahan were paid $2.6 million for their cooperation.
According to a CNN report when the scheme was uncovered in 2009, Ciavarella sentenced a 15-year-old girl to a boot camp for mocking her school's vice principal on a MySpace page. He sent a 14-year old to boarding school for 9 months just for taking loose change out of cars. Most tragically, 17-year-old Edward Kenzakowski, who spent 6 months in a detention center for possessing drug paraphernalia, spiraled into depression after his release and eventually committed suicide. Most of the defendants who appeared before the judge did not have a lawyer present at their hearing, But as one interview subject says in the trailer, "The way Ciavarella ran the courtroom, you could've had F. Lee Bailey there, and the kids would've gone away.
The documentary "Kids for Cash" is the directorial debut from Robert May, who was the executive producer of the Oscar-winning documentary "The Fog of War." May interviewed the kids and parents involved in the case, along with Ciavarella himself. May said in a statement, "I set out to capture what I thought was simply a scandalous story about the forces of good and evil, but quickly realized how naïve I really was – what I actually found was terrifying.”
There is some semblance of justice for this story, as Ciavarella was sentenced to 28 years in prison and was ordered to pay around $1 million in restitution. He is currently serving time in the Federal Correctional Institution in Perkins, IL, where he will not be eligible for release until 2035.
"Kids for Cash" is opening in Pennsylvania on Feb. 7 and will expand to other markets on Feb. 28.