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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Kids for Cash
Kids for Cash
Kino // PG-13 // December 2, 2014
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Oktay Ege Kozak | posted December 3, 2014 | E-mail the Author
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C O N T E N T
V I D E O
A U D I O
E X T R A S
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Highly Recommended
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The Movie:

Twenty-seven years after Wall Street, we're still asking ourselves the question, "Is greed really that good?" If all that matters for capitalism to thrive is profit, regardless of where that profit comes from, would there be any place for ethics, empathy and basic human rights in such a world? If an insurance company stood to make more money from a patient's death than their health, what motivation would they have to save that person if greed is the only motivating factor? There are some aspects of human life that perhaps should not be for profit, and the justice system is one of them.

Kids for Cash is a terrific documentary that's as close as we're going to get to a captivating legal thriller in non-fiction form. It's about the notorious corruption case that involved a deal between the owner of a juvenile correctional facility who needed to keep his profits up, and a judge who made sure to pack that facility full of children thanks to insanely over-exaggerated sentences in exchange for large sums of money.

While adults all around the country freaked out as they implemented a "Zero Tolerance Policy" after the tragic 1999 shooting in Columbine, the residents at Luzerne County in Pennsylvania were happy with their charismatic and stern Judge Ciavarella, who never batted an eye as he sent young troublemakers to juvenile facilities.

Yet gradually parents began noticing a disturbing pattern: Innocent kids who were involved in minor trouble, such as fighting with another classmate or even creating a fake Myspace page (This is the mid-2000s, after all) to make fun of their vice principal, incidents that should have resulted in a day or two of suspension at most, were coerced into waiving their right to an attorney and sent to juvenile jail, sometimes for over five years. Eventually, it turned out that Ciavarella received a large sum of money from the owner of the juvenile facility so it could be kept packed by any means necessary.

Kids For Cash meticulously follows the details of the case implicating Ciaravella and his cohorts through case documents and interviews with legal experts and local media. This dry legal procedural side of the doc is intercut with emotionally crushing testimonials from children who got caught in Ciavarella and Co.'s scheme and had their lives immensely altered, sometimes even destroyed, because of this enterprise of greed. This dual approach effectively feeds both the procedural and the emotional needs of the doc's subject matter.

On top of Kids For Cash's impressive execution as an investigative documentary, Director Robert May accomplishes a rare feat and actually manages to score various interviews with Ciavarella himself, who keeps insisting that even though he received a finder's fee of over two million dollars from the juvenile facility's construction, he didn't send those kids to jail for any kickbacks.

Excuse me, but isn't that worse? Money and greed are instantly understandable motivations for evil and corruption. Hell, over ninety percent of action or superhero movie antagonists do their dastardly deeds for money and power, mainly because it's a motivation that can be quickly inserted into the screenplay in order to leave more room for action set pieces.

But if money wasn't involved as an incentive, why did this man deliberately ruin these kids' lives for minor troublemaking that definitely didn't deserve such punishment? Was he a sociopath who gained pleasure from watching these children suffer? He claims that he did what he thought was right for these kids. How could it be right to send someone to prison for years for creating a satirical Myspace page? I don't know about you, but I'd rather be called a greedy bastard instead of an ultra fascist psychopath any day.

The DVD:

Video:

Kids For Cash sports one of the best standard definition transfers I've seen for a documentary. The digital photography is captured very clearly and without any noticeable video noise.

Audio:

The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track is the only audio option presented here and it does a fairly good job of creating a clean mix of interviews and non-diagetic music. The documentary's haunting score envelops the mix whenever it appears. Otherwise, this is a center-heavy transfer.

Extras:

Interviews: Thirteen extra minutes of interview footage is presented here. Some interesting stuff, but nothing essential.

We also get a Trailer.

Final Thoughts:

Even though those who were responsible for this scandal were brought to justice, the juvenile correctional system, as well as the adult system, needs a serious overhaul as non-violent crimes are severely punished for no reason other than to keep the correctional system's profits up. Kids For Cash is an important documentary that could influence and inform the public towards a hopeful change in this corrupt institution.

Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com

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