The “Kids for Cash” movie may recount a new low in Luzerne County corruption, but it has fast become a tool used to show legislators and court officials nationwide how easily the closed-court approach can fail the children it is supposed to help, according to Marie Yeager of the Juvenile Law Center, an organization featured in the film.
The movie has been shown in private screenings in Colorado as legislators consider increasing money to help make sure more children appearing in juvenile court have an attorney, Yeager said. About 45 percent of juveniles there appear without representation, a situation eerily similar to what happened in former Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella’s court, where about half the juveniles had no legal counsel.
A Hartford, Conn., judge wants to arrange private screenings for judges, probation officers and other court workers there. It has been sought or already shown in other states as well, Yeager said, and the film’s influence is poised to reach the inner halls of Washington D.C., where private viewings are scheduled for Department of Justice workers.
“The kids voices are rarely ever heard in this business,” Yeager said. “They are kind of moved in and moved out of the system. This is the first time you really hear what it does to kids.”
The effort to get the film shown to the Justice Department workers is spearheaded by Robert Listenbee, a longtime juvenile defense attorney in Philadelphia who sat on the Interbranch Commission of Juvenile Justice, a group formed by the Pennsylvania legislature in the wake of the scandal that landed Ciavarella and fellow Luzerne County Judge Michael Conahan in jail.
The commission conducted numerous hearings and reviewed reams of reports before making recommendations for changes to prevent a recurrence of the scandal, which centered on millions in payments from the developer and owner of private detention centers to Ciavarella and Conahan.
Listenbee was appointed as director of the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in February 2013 and is using that position to get the “Kids for Cash” film screened in Washington, Yeager said.
The Juvenile Law Center, which helped uncover many of the problems in Ciavarella’s courtroom, believes the new movie can be an eye-opener for people who assume the juvenile system, routinely conducted behind closed doors, works in the best interest of those juveniles. The film chronicles how children appearing before Ciavarella had little or no opportunity to testify, often had waived the right of an attorney without understanding the consequences, and ended up trapped in the system for years.
When given a chance to see a movie that shows what can really happen in hearings beyond the public eye, “people see it as a very powerful educational tool,” Yeager said.
The scandal prompted numerous changes in Pennsylvania and Luzerne County to improve protection of juvenile rights, and the movie may be helping do the same nationwide, but Yeager said there is one disturbing statistic being overlooked amid all the talk of reform.
“Pennsylvania is still one of the worst states in the entire country for locking up kids,” Yeager said. “Even after all the reforms prompted by Luzerne County went into place.”
Yeager cites federal data that shows that, among the country’s 10 most populated states, Pennsylvania is the only one that saw an increase in the daily population of juveniles in residential placements between 2001 and 2010.
The number in Pennsylvania residential facilities climbed by 1.7 percent, while the number in the other nine states dropped anywhere from 27.5 percent in Georgia to 43 percent in Michigan.
That’s not to say Pennsylvania hasn’t cut the number of juveniles being placed. It has, from 316 per 100,000 in 2010 to 235 per 100,000 in 2011 alone.
But, Yeager notes, while Pennsylvania’s rates have gone down, “everybody else’s rates have gone down faster.”
The reason, Yeager speculates, is primarily two fold: big money and old habits.
“There are many millions of dollars of state fees associated with such placements,” she noted. “And there are many judges who still believe in a get tough mentality.”