WILKES-BARRE — One of the young men prominently depicted in the “Kids for Cash” documentary about the Luzerne County judicial scandal died last week, director and producer Robert May confirmed Saturday.
Charlie Balasavage passed away Thursday afternoon due to a drug overdose, May said. He was 28.
Balasavage was 15 when he was arrested for possession of a stolen motorbike, despite protests that his parents had purchased it for him and did not know it was stolen.
Disgraced Luzerne County judge Mark A. Ciavarella sent the teen off to what would turn into a three-year stay in juvenile detention centers after a hearing that lasted only three minutes.
May said he has remained in contact with Balasavage’s family following his 2014 documentary, in which he was among many people interviewed, including the judges at the heart of the scandal and several of the youths whose lives were upended by the draconian sentences imposed by Ciavarella, in particular.
“We are heartbroken at the news of Charlie’s death. We got to know Charlie because of his own Kids for Cash story — a sweet young man whose initial, utterly pointless arrest led him directly to former Judge Ciavarella, which in turn led to years of cycling in and out of the justice system,” said Philadelphia-area attorney Marsha Levick. She is co-founder of the Juvenile Law Center, which worked on behalf of youths who were incarcerated in Luzerne County to expose wrongdoing by the judges.
“Charlie struggled with many challenges, but we never lost our sense of hope for him,” said Levick. “We will remember him as one of our heroes who fought back for hundreds of other kids in Luzerne County, and we weep with his family as they grieve this tragic loss.”
The Balasavage family has asked for privacy, but granted May permission to speak about their loved one’s death, he said.
“His family wants Charlie’s story to be told. He was one of those people that everybody would say how lovable and good-natured he was,” May told the Times Leader.
“Sadly, his good nature was stunted by the time he spent in the juvenile system,” May added. “The juvenile system helped him get into drugs as opposed to him getting the help he really needed.”
Ciavarella, together with former county judge Michael Conahan, are both in federal prison. They were charged in 2009 with taking part in a $2.8 million kickback scheme involving the construction of two, for-profit juvenile detention centers and the placement of youths in the facilities in Pittston Township and Butler County.
Ciavarella had a long history of imposing harsh sentences on youths for even minor offenses – well before the for-profit detention centers came into play – and for operating a courtroom in which young offenders and their parents often were rushed through proceedings without lawyers.
Ciavarella’s get-tough attitude only intensified after the 1999 Columbine school shootings in Colorado, as May’s film depicted him, when the judge’s “zero tolerance” stance was applauded by county schools, including the Wilkes-Barre Area School District.
Balasavage developed a drug addiction from his time in detention, May said, which was only one of the ways in which Ciavarella’s sentence robbed him and other youths of their future.
Balasavage and the four other youths featured in May’s documentary received an offer from Wilkes University to further their education.
Two of the other young people featured in the documentary took the university up on their offer: Hillary Transue has received two master’s degrees from the university and Justin Bodnar is finishing his degree this year, May said.
For Balasavage, it proved much more challenging.
“He started at Wilkes, but he was overwhelmed by the entire process,” May said of Balasavage, who went on to work at Movies 14 in downtown Wilkes-Barre.
Over the years, he found many supportive friends, but also continued to struggle with addiction — he was in and out of rehab centers — and encountered some people who were less than supportive.
“He had so many people that cared about him and tried to help him,” May said, adding: “He was vulnerable. Some of the people he hung out with could pull him back in.”
Balasavage also struggled with self-esteem in the wake of his teenage experiences.
“It’s sad because he was used to hearing he wasn’t smart and people calling him stupid from his time in juvenile detention centers,” May added. “This really showed how Ciavarella’s sentencing impacted him.”
Ciavarella was sentenced to 28 years in prison. He is serving his sentence at the low-security federal correctional institution in Ashland, Ky.
Some of the convictions in his 2011 trial were overturned last year by a federal judge. Ciavarella argued he had ineffective counsel and was granted a new trial. It is on hold pending an appeal. In the meantime, records show a release date of Dec. 30, 2035.
Conahan pleaded guilty to racketeering and was sentenced to 17½ years in prison. He is an inmate at the low-security federal correctional institution in Miami, Fla., with a release date of Dec. 18, 2026.
Balasavage is not the first of the “Kids for Cash” defendants to die young in the wake of their incarceration.
Edward R. Kenzakoski III was sent to a juvenile detention center by Ciavarella. He committed suicide in 2010 at the age of 23. His mother, Sandy Fonzo, blamed Ciavarella for Kenzakoski’s death. Fonzo garnered national attention when she screamed at Ciavarella outside the courthouse the day of his sentencing.
May doesn’t want the scandal, or Balasavage, to be forgotten.
“Charlie’s story is still helping people across the world,” he said. “The film has been circulated across the globe for educational purposes. He was such an inspiring person.”
A memorial video about Balasavage can be found at https://vimeo.com/322496257.
His obituary will appear in Sunday’s Times Leader.
Reach Dan Stokes at 570-991-6389 or on Twitter @ByDanStokes