Horror Movie: Kids for Cash

Robert May’s new film conveys the terror of Luzerne County’s kids-for-cash judicial scandal.

Kids For Cash Movie, Luzerne County PA Judges

Illustration by James Heimer

In high school, odds are you knew (or were) a merry prankster like Hillary Transue. The one who was whip-smart, quick with a quip and hostile to authority. In July 2006, when Transue made a mock MySpace page tweaking her school’s assistant principal, she expected to be sent to his superior’s office. If she was lucky, she’d get detention; if not, maybe suspension for a day.

Instead, the 14-year-old with dancing blue eyes was sent to Luzerne County’s juvenile court, where Judge Mark Ciavarella Jr. found her guilty of “harassment.” She was sentenced to three months at a juvenile detention facility. After a one-minute hearing, she was handcuffed and escorted from the courtroom while her mother watched, dazed. Before the hearing, Mrs. Transue was advised that bringing a lawyer would be perceived as adversarial, and seemed unnecessary for such a minor crime.

Three months! Others weren’t so lucky, spending as much as seven years in the juvenile detention system at centers where Ciavarella and fellow judge Michael Conahan had financial interests. (The pair racked up $2.6 million in kickbacks from a builder and co-owner of centers.)

Transue is one of five young people profiled in Kids for Cash, Robert May’s gut-punch of a documentary scheduled to open February 7. The “kids” include Justin Bodnar, who at 12 used profanity in front of another student’s mother at the bus stop and was sentenced for “terroristic threats.” He spent the next seven years in and out of juvenile detention, where he was educated in the finer points of heroin and carjacking. There’s also then-15-year-old Charlie Balasavage, whose parents gave him a used motor scooter, unaware that it was stolen property. Charlie did the time, ultimately spending five years in the juvenile detention system.

Adjectives like “Kafkaesque” and “Dickensian” are woefully inadequate to May’s novelistic account, the movie equivalent of a page-turner. The true-life events chronicled in the engrossing documentary are tinged with horror-movie dread. Little wonder the kids-for-cash scandal has also inspired West Chester author John Dixon’s new nail-biter novel Phoenix Island.

Kids for Cash interviews both the kids and the judges. What hits hardest is how cannily May contrasts the teenagers’ “crimes” and Draconian sentences with the judges’ felonies and self-justifications. In the wake of a wave of school shootings, they used the fear of Columbine-like violence to defend their verdicts, rationalizing their actions with the principle of “zero tolerance” and suggesting that harsh sentences would deter other students.

May is a gifted storyteller who segues between close-ups on each youth’s saga and the panorama of how the educational and justice systems failed them and an estimated 3,000 others. The producer of The Fog of War and The Station Agent, May lives in the Luzerne County township of Dallas and has two teenagers. In 2009, when he read the allegations against judges for whom he had voted, May asked himself: “How could such upstanding pillars of the community sink so low?”

A horror story is only as good as its villains are bad and its victims are sympathetic. May couldn’t ask for more. He also has heroes in Marsha Levick and Robert Schwartz of Philadelphia’s Juvenile Law Center, who represented some of the detained children.

The Luzerne kickback scandal isn’t an anomaly. As Kids for Cash reminds us, millions of teenagers in cities across the U.S. are diverted from schools to juvenile facilities. The centers cost U.S. taxpayers an estimated $7 billion annually — money that might be better spent on education than incarceration.

Kids for Cash opens in Philadelphia on Fri., Feb. 7 at Ritz at the Bourse.