Now on Netflix
Cash for Kids
1995: 12-year-old Bethany picked a schoolyard fight with her classmate Crystal because Crystal called her fat. Lucy received a firm scolding by the principal and a one-week suspension.
2015: 12-year-old Kelly picked a fight with Madison because Madison called Kelly’s family poor because she still has an iPhone 4. The judge sentenced her to three years in a juvenile detention center.
In the aftermath of the 1999 school shooting at Columbine High School, parents and communities came up with innovative new ways to prevent school shootings and to keep American children safe.
The plan was to treat naughty school kids more like adult criminals.
This new Zero Tolerance policy did not eliminate the threat of school shootings. What it did was greatly increase the number of American teenagers living in juvenile detention centers.
Perhaps the most disturbing societal trend of our lifetime is the huge increase in the number of Americans living in prisons. The documentary “Cash for Kids” sheds some light on how this came to be.
The film introduces us to some young Pennsylvanians who had their childhoods ruined by the Zero Tolerance regime. One boy was sentenced to four years of juvenile detention for unknowingly buying a stolen scooter. One girl spent her high school years in “juvy” because she set up a fake Myspace page to make fun of her school’s Vice Principal.
Then the film introduces us to former Luzerne County judge Mark Ciavarella, the man who put them – and hundreds of other kids – behind bars.
Before long, there were so many imprisoned children, they had to build a new, larger, privately-owned juvenile detention center.
The community mostly supported Judge Ciavarella’s tough justice. That is until it was discovered that Ciavarella had received a finder’s fee from the prison company after they won the contract to build the new detention center.
The Cash for Kids scandal destroyed the judge’s career and his life. He is currently serving a 28-year sentence.
I certainly don’t feel sorry for Ciavarella. But I do argue that hideous problems are inevitable when we allow private prisons in our society.
I’m a libertarian. I think that almost everything should be done by the private sector. When a private company does something, you always get more for your money.
Except with prisons, we don’t want more. The fact that there are more than 2 million people incarcerated right now is shameful. Prison should be an absolute last resort for the tiny handful of violent criminals who are too dangerous to even be at home under house arrest.
The problem with prisons, the film argues, is that they create criminals. The young people that are interviewed entered Pennsylvania’s Juvenile Detention Centers as normal kids and left as loners and misfits.
Zero Tolerance is a popular concept. It appeals to people’s sense of justice and retribution. But it’s a lousy way to run a school system. Or our country.