Mark Ciaverella Jr was a Judge in the Pennsylvania Juvenile Court, Luzerne County,who abused his position to sell juveniles into prison facilities as “Kids for Cash.” When it came to his turn to be sentenced he was given almost thirty years behind bars. He is now the subject of a new documentary.
This man took money in exchange for the incarceration of thousands of children and young adults. The developer who owned the private prison system paid him “under the table.” These highly illegal and immoral earnings amounted to over a million dollars in Ciaverella’s back pocket.
Convictions he made between the years of 2003 to 2004 have all been overturned, amounting to over 4,000 cases. He consistently violated the constitutional rights of youngsters, including their right to have legal counsel and their right to enter an intelligent plea. One of the youngest persons he passed sentence on was only ten years old. His sentencing was rapid, and invariably severe. He need to keep that prison packed with kids. Non-violent, insignificant and even nonsensical “crime” was penalised the same way. Throwing some steak at an adult was one offence.
He was ordered to repay the $1.2 million on top of his 12 convictions which included money laundering, racketeering, tax evasion and mail fraud.
That Judges can be corrupted is a flaw in the ideology of Law and Order, but this “Kids for Cash” concept opened a very nasty can of worms indeed. It exposed the corruption within the prisons, so desperate for “growth” that they will chase profits by whatever means.
Now a powerful new documentary has been filmed which Variety have described as “deeply shocking and continually surprising.”
Set for release in February 2014, the film by Robert May will offer up a “scathing critique of America’s juvenile justice system.” The documentary, titled Kids for Cash, aims to stir outrage and deep concern about the penal institutes, and the whole issue of privatization.
It also begs the question – why would a nation not sign the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child? One hundred and ninety-three nations have ratified this treaty, only three have not. These countries are South Sudan, Somalia, and the United States of America. Why?
Ciaverella’s former reputation as a tough but fair juvenile court judge was once a highly respected one. After the Columbine shootings had provoked a national state of paranoia, he came down hard with sentences that were way over the top for the crimes committed. He would put kids in jail for minor offenses that would formerly have seen them sent to the principal’s office or suspended from school for a day or two. At the time, this was appreciated as a dire warning to kids to stick to the straight and narrow. Any deviation would be punished, hard. They would be locked up. Testimonials and news clippings illustrate this historical evidence. It was “zero tolerance.”
In the documentary, there are numerous interviews with those young people who were taken from their families and incarcerated by Ciaverella’s draconian regime. They are all victims of stolen childhoods, of separation from parents, family and friends, of post-traumatic stress, and in most instances, ongoing depression. Their “crimes” were the minor misdemeanours of most youngsters, who push against the boundaries just a little as they cross from childhood into adolescence. A tussle in the school yard. A satirical post on a MySpace page. Buying a scooter that they did not realise (how could they?) was a stolen good. The average age they were taken and locked away was 12 or 13 years old.
The parents in the film are wracked with guilt. They trusted the authorities and not their own children, and they did not fight to deliver them from such stark injustice. There is a truly heartbreaking point in the footage, where a mother, whose son took his own life after release, confronts Ciavarella. She calls him a “heartless murderer” to his face. For parents like her, no matter what sentence Ciavarella serves, nothing will bring their children back.
A disturbing aspect of the narrative is the way it makes clear that opinion only turned against him when his kickbacks are exposed. It does this by carefully charting the story through use of news clips. His cruelty is deemed acceptable when he is seen to be a firm exponent of zero tolerance. It is avarice which brings him down, not his human rights abuse of minors.
After the state juvenile centre is closed down, because it is so rundown, Ciaverella is seen to profit from the construction of a new private facility. He and another judge, Michael Conahan, both get indicted on charges of money laundering. Every detail of the trial is scrupulously examined and it charts the process whereby an industry has sprung up to make profits. And it does that by bunging as many people as possible into prison. Even children.
Astoundingly, both Ciaverella and Conahan agreed to be interviewed which provides an extraordinary exercise in self-justification.
Zero tolerance was a policy much-lauded in the English judicial system in the aftermath of the London Riots of summer 2011. Here again, kids were to be “made examples of” as a scare to others. It was widely felt that the sentencing was harsh and disproportionate. Although the issue of private prisons is not so relevant, the attitude of overly tough justice was called into question. Kids were sent down for four years for Facebook posts, despite the fact they caused no disorder. Many felt that restorative, rather than retributional, justice, would have been more helpful, but there was a hysteria in the air. Petty theft during the riots, as small as a bottle of water, two sccops of ice cream or a packet of chewing gum, were all heavily punished.
Meanwhile, the three companies at the midst of the scandal have been ordered to pay a $2.5 million settlement in a civil lawsuit brought by thousands of juvenile claimants. PA Child Care, Western PA Child care and Mid-Atlantic Youth Services Corp were all indicted and the settlement has had preliminary approval in federal court. All the juveniles who were sent to a facility between 2003 and 2008 are now eligible to receive damages.
They will receive damages, but they are already damaged. By a legal system that was supposed to protect them, but instead, sold them off for money. It is a shocking and horrible story, and the documentary Kids for Cash will now expose it to a worldwide audience.
See below for a discussion with the film-maker at the recent DOC NYC festival:
By Kate Henderson