OP-ED: ‘Kids-for-Cash’ Documentary a Reminder of Continuing Problems in Juvenile Justice Systems

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Megan Bruce

By now, you might already be familiar with the story behind the Luzerne County, Penn., “kids-for-cash” scandal, in which hundreds of children appeared before juvenile court judge Mark Ciavarella without legal counsel, were quickly adjudicated delinquent for minor offenses (such as creating a mock MySpace page about an assistant vice principal) and were immediately sent to juvenile facilities.

After Juvenile Law Center uncovered the scandal in 2007, Ciavarella and another Luzerne County judge, Michael Conahan, were accused of accepting nearly $2.8 million in kickbacks from two private, for-profit juvenile detention facilities in exchange for sending children there. Conahan pled guilty and was sentenced to 17 years in prison, while Ciavarella was found guilty of various federal crimes following his trial in 2011 and was sentenced to 28 years in prison.

At 14 years old, Charlie Balasavage was given a used scooter as a present, which turned out to be stolen. He was arrested, adjudicated delinquent, and sent to a juvenile detention facility.

At 14 years old, Charlie Balasavage was given a used scooter as a present, which turned out to be stolen. He was arrested, adjudicated delinquent, and sent to a juvenile detention facility.

Case closed, right? Not in the least — and the documentary “Kids for Cash” aims to bring awareness to that fact. For many of the children who were involved, the scandal and the resulting consequences of juvenile justice system involvement will have life-long effects. “Kids for Cash” is an eye-opening and heart-wrenching portrayal of juvenile “justice” through the eyes of a child — like 14-year-old Charlie, whose parents unknowingly gave him a used scooter as a present. The scooter turned out to be stolen. Charlie was arrested, adjudicated delinquent and sent to a juvenile detention facility — launching him on a multi-year journey through the juvenile justice system, which eventually ended in the adult criminal justice system.

But “Kids for Cash” is about far more than just those children who were directly affected by this scandal. It’s about every child in this country who is unfairly and unnecessarily pushed into the criminal justice system because of “zero-tolerance” school discipline policies. It’s about every child who, facing system involvement, is not informed that he or she has the right to legal counsel or is not assigned a skilled juvenile defender when he or she shows up in court without one. It’s about every child who is unaware of the consequences of having a juvenile record and doesn’t know that they must proactively seek help to expunge, or destroy, that record. It is about the disturbing and routine violations of children’s most basic constitutional rights that happen every day across this country, and how we must take action to make this country a safer, more just place for kids. It is about our country’s lack of understanding and willingness to lock up millions of children each year — 95 percent for non-violent offenses.

“Kids for Cash” is an important vehicle for promoting awareness of critical systemic issues for both juvenile justice advocates and average citizens alike. You can watch it now through your cable provider’s on-demand service or download it on iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, Google Play, Sony Playstation and Vudu.

“Kids for Cash” was directed and produced by Robert May, producer of the Oscar-winning film “The Fog of War” and “The Station Agent.” “Kids for Cash” was recently named the “Best Human Rights” film at the New Zealand Documentary Edge Film Festival.

Learn more about the “kids-for-cash” scandal and the work Juvenile Law Center has done to litigate the scandal and seek justice for the children and families involved on our website at www.jlc.org/kidsforcash.

Megan Bruce is online communication manager for JLC.

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