WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. Bob Casey on Wednesday expressed hope that the showing of a film in the nation’s Capitol depicting the infamous “kids for cash’’ scandal that shocked Luzerne County in 2008 will serve as an impetus to reform America’s juvenile justice system.
Casey, D-Scranton, who is developing legislation to address perceived shortcomings in the current federal law adopted 40 years ago, said the 102-minute documentary “Kids for Ca$h,’’ produced and directed by Robert May, who maintains property around Wilkes-Barre, will instill “a sense of urgency’’ with lawmakers to make sure similar events never occur again.
Changes in the law are necessary, Casey said, “so that more children are not robbed of their rights, robbed of their futures and robbed of their happiness.’’
“One word – justice. That’s what this is all about,’’ he said. “What’s depicted in this movie is injustice. These children, these young people in this film were robbed of justice.’’
The kids for cash scandal involved two former Luzerne County judges, Michael Conahan and Mark Ciavarella, who helped piece together a privately owned and operated juvenile detention facility and accepted a $2.6 million “finders fee’’ from the developer. The judges then proceeded to sentence youthful offenders to serve in the facility – some for extended periods of time – without revealing their financial involvement.
Both men are now serving long prison terms on various charges.
During a panel discussion after the film’s showing, Marshal Levick, co-founder of the Juvenile Justice Center in Philadelphia, a group that helped expose the scandal, noted that the film concentrated on problems in Luzerne County, but similar issues can be found in “the juvenile justice system across the country.’’
“At the end of the day, it’s not about the money,’’ Levick said. “The story is really about an abuse of power, and it’s an abuse of power that used these children as victims. All these issues are national issues playing out every day across the 50 states.’’
Hillary Transue, who was sentenced by Ciavarella to juvenile detention for creating a MySpace page ridiculing an assistant principal at her school, asserted that “We need to start treating children with honesty and compassion.’’
“As soon as a child appears before a judge, the system has failed that child,’’ said Transue, adding that “we overestimate their ability to understand the consequences of their actions.’’
May told about 100 viewers gathered in the Capitol Visitors Center that he came upon the kids for cash story while conducting research for a film on Pennsylvania coal miners. He said the project would not have succeeded without the assistance of the two judges.
“I’ll never be the same, and my two children will never be the same either,’’ May said, explaining the impact of the incident on his life. “I saw the way we treated children and I was appalled. And I see children very differently.’’
Casey said states handle juvenile justice in different ways, but the federal government needs to play a role. One change he anticipates deals with the sentencing of juvenile offenders who violate laws that pertain only to those under the age of majority – violations such as breaking curfew.
“We need to have that threat taken away from them,’’ he said.
He also said alternatives need to be considered in adjudicating juvenile offenders who are not involved in violent crimes. He suggested a greater degree of mentoring and counseling will not only serve young individuals better than incarceration, but it will also save money.
About 2 million children are arrested in the U.S. each year – more than any other country in the world. Ninety-five percent of those arrests are for non-violent crimes. The nation invests $10,500 annually per child on education — $88,000 on each child incarcerated.
The film relates events “critically important’’ in convincing lawmakers to address the “tragedy’’ that had an impact on scores of juvenile offenders, Casey said.