I hope you will allow me a little leeway to wander a bit off the path of my usual topics and discuss one of the many topics that brings my blood to its boiling point. For those who have followed my previous blogs, writings, and activism, it is likely no surprise that at the heart of my challenges toward organized religion is the systematic forced indoctrination of young minds. In short, while the vast majority of my work may not be intended for young audiences, it is indeed *for* the children. It is with this understanding that I wanted to take a moment to chat about a documentary I finally gathered the emotional energy to watch last night, Kids For Cash from director Robert May.
I think the best way to start this conversation would be to begin with the very first words to appear on the black screen.
“The child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care… mankind owes to the child the best it has to give.” – The United Nations – “Convention On The Rights Of The Child – 1989”
All 193 United Nation member countries have ratified the Convention of the Rights Of The Child… except Somalia, South Sudan, and the United States.”- Kids For Cash, opening title sequence
Cynical viewers cognisant of tricks employed by filmmakers to appeal to viewers on biases might be tempted to dismiss this bit of information as prejudicial or driven by an agenda – going on to claim that the U.S. is not required to sign every “frivolous” piece of paper that comes out of the United Nations. But, one must ask, in this case, why not? If for no other reason than to not be in the company of Somalia and South Sudan?
I will not get into all of the details of the film because I’d rather encourage you to take the time to watch it for yourself, rather than adopt my own take on the facts of the case. However, I will say that is a story of a single judge in Pennsylvania who made a career out of incarcerating over 3,000 juveniles, making good on his promises to dole out what many would consider to be capriciously abusive multi-year “maximum” sentences for the pettiest of childhood “crimes;” a satirical MySpace profile, accepting a gift that was stolen, drinking beer, writing prank notes, slapping fights on the volleyball court, or arguing with an adult in public.
Over 3,000 children taken from their homes and placed in a special detention center with real criminals – often for several years, changing their lives forever; never returning to school, turning to addiction, suffering from PTSD, or even… committing suicide.
What was so “special” about this particular judge and this detention center? The film follows investigations uncovering a web corruption and greed, involving millions of dollars in kickbacks relating to the building (and filling) of a new juvenile detention center. (Spoiler Alert: The two judges involved in the case do not dispute receiving millions of dollars from the company awarded with the new detention center project (as well as laundering the money through several companies owned by the top judge) but simply argue semantics over the difference between a “finder’s fee” and a “kickback.”
But, for me, the real weight of this story isn’t about the specifics of financial corruption. One of the judges asserts that the money had nothing to do with his activist stance toward maximum adult sentences for minimal juvenile offenders (an assertion that is backed up by the judge’s record of equally harsh sentences predating the financial aspect by more than a decade). I have to say – I believe him.
“I wanted them to be scared out of their minds. I don’t see how that’s a bad thing.” – Judge Ciaverella
To me, the real story is about the brokenness of a system that relies on activist judges armed with their own daddy issues and god complexes being elected on a campaign of “zero tolerance” and “maximum sentences” for first-time juvenile offenders.
I think it is important to understand that many of the “child criminals” began their multi-year incarcerations in handcuffs at the age of 13 for offenses as shocking as… writing prank notes. It is with this in mind that I’d just encourage readers to watch the film (available on NetFlix and Amazon), and get involved by checking out some of the amazing resources put together on the Kids For Cash web page. And with that, I’ll leave you with some facts that are shared in the breathtakingly emotional closing title sequence set a children’s choir acoustic rendition of Radiohead’s “Creep” that left me weeping (and angry).
- Two million children are arrested every year in the US. 95% for non-violent crimes.
- Each year, the US spends $10,500 per child on education and $88,000 on each child incarcerated.
- 60% of children who have been incarcerated never return to school.
- The US incarcerates nearly 5 times more children than any other nation in the world.
Looking back, I wonder how our post-Columbine “zero tolerance” policies would have affected my own life. When I was 14 years old, as part of an never-ending altercation with the “rich kid” in school, I threw his hat out the window of our bus on the way to school. This, of course, led to each of us throwing a couple of teenaged blows, causing the bus driver to pull over and write us up. Later that day our parents were called and we both met with the principal. Our parents and the principal, not the cops and judges. We received detention, not incarceration. We were sentenced to work together to repaint some bleachers – not whisked away to a juvenile detention center (a nice word for prison). By the end of it all we made up, became friends, and realized we were both just childish idiots. The End.
Today? Post Columbine? Zero Tolerance? On campus police? My life could have been over before it began.
THE GOOD NEWS: You’ll be happy to know that through the efforts of the Juvenile Law Center, over 2,480 of these cases have been reversed and expunged to date.
THE BAD NEWS: This, of course after developing children were already ripped from their homes and locked up with rapists and drug dealers, coming out with a very new perspective on life, indeed. Likewise, this is only the story of one judge, publicly elected by one town on a charismatic platform of fighting crime.