The “Kids For Ca$h” movie depicting the Luzerne County juvenile justice scandal that led to two judges’ imprisonment and changes to the state system should be part of the national conversation, said Wilkes-Barre attorney Barry Dyller, who is interviewed in the film.
The 102-minute documentary describes, through interviews with families, media and others, former Judge Mark Ciavarella’s practice of routinely incarcerating hundreds of juveniles not represented by counsel after finding them delinquent for minor offenses.
It also chronicles how Ciavarella and former President Judge Michael Conahan secretly took money in connection with construction of private juvenile detention centers.
Ciavarella is serving a 28-year prison sentence for accepting kickbacks and failing to report “finder’s fees” in connection with the development of the detention facilities in Pittston Township and Butler County. Conahan, who pleaded guilty, is serving a 17-year sentence.
A screening for local news media was held Thursday afternoon at R/C Wilkes Barre Movies 14. Academy Award-winning filmmaker Robert May, a native of Dallas, produced and directed the movie.
May co-produced the 2003 Academy Award-winning documentary “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara,” and produced “The Station Agent,” “The War Tapes” and “Bonneville.” “Kids for Ca$h” premieres locally Feb. 7.
“It’s an extremely valuable addition to the conversation Americans have every day about how Americans run their lives,” Dyller said Thursday. “It’s an important part of the conversation about good and evil, about American government. It’s a cautionary tale about a fall from grace.”
Dyller, identified as the primary civil rights lawyer in Northeastern Pennsylvania, added, “I think it ‘s important for society at large to recognize that kids are just kids. The whole concept of zero tolerance — whether it relates to kids, whether it relates to adults — zero tolerance means zero judgment. We have judges to exercise judgment.”
Marsha Levick, a co-founder of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, which began investigating irregularities in Luzerne County Juvenile Court based on a parent’s call in 2007, said she has gone to screenings around the country and it has resonated with people.
“Yes, it’s about the money, but there are a lot of other things going on behind closed doors,” Levick said. “Take the money out of it and you have the zero-tolerance issue, the lax attention to kids’ constitutional rights, the willingness of judges to remove kids from their homes, the length of time they spend in the system and the very negative consequences kids experience.”
She said the case always drew national attention and initially international attention when it broke in 2009, because it brought attention to the issues of the denial of counsel for kids, turning school discipline into juvenile court cases and the rush to incarcerate kids.
“We have an over-incarceration problem in Luzerne County and across the country,” Levick said.
But in addition to the clearing of 2,401 juveniles’ records by the state Supreme Court, the court and the legislature passed rules and amendments or changes that fixed various problems.
“Now it’s virtually impossible to waive counsel,” said Levick, who appears numerous times in the documentary.
“But all is not rosy,” she added. “We’re still pushing way too many kids into the juvenile justice system, placing too many kids across the country.”
Levick and Dyller like the film, and it even made Dyller feel some sympathy for Ciavarella.
“I feel bad that he had such a fall … and that he took down hundreds of people,” Dyller said.