Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.
Sunday, December 4, 2016

By Steven Rea, The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA — The story at the heart of “Kids For Cash” — judges taking kickbacks from the developer of a private juvenile detention center, then funneling thousands of children there — happened right in Robert May’s backyard. A producer with a New York-based distribution company, SenArt Films, and a track record in both fiction and nonfiction features (“The Station Agent,” “The War Tapes”), May lives in Luzerne County. Pa. He has two children who were 10 and 13 back in 2009, when news of the scandal broke — not just in Pennsylvania, but also in media outlets around the country.

“I knew what it’s like to raise kids and be challenged by all that,” May says, “so it made the story even more close to home, if you will.”

In “Kids For Cash,” May traces the actions of Wilkes-Barre Court of Common Pleas justices Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan. In 2002, the judges received more than $2 million from the builder of a new private facility for juvenile offenders. Then Ciavarella, espousing a “zero-tolerance” policy, started dispatching kids there — in handcuffs and ankle shackles.

The charges, in many instances, were minor: classroom pranks, a fight between students, profanity. But the sentencing was severe. Some middle schoolers and high-school students would serve years.

Thanks to a pair of Philadelphia lawyers — Marsha Levick and Robert Schwartz, of the nonprofit Juvenile Law Center — Ciavarella’s systematic sentencing of minors, who often appeared before him without legal representation, was exposed.

And May had the makings of a documentary.

“My producing partner, Lauren Timmons, and I were on a research retreat in Jim Thorpe, Pa., when the scandal broke,” May recalls. “We were down there working on another project, it was late January, and it was just a bombardment from that day on, for weeks, for months. There was so much media attention …