ARUN RATH, HOST:
It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.
Kids for Cash. That was the shorthand in countless newspaper articles back in 2009 describing a major corruption scandal in the juvenile justice system in northeast Pennsylvania. Two local judges had been enforcing a zero-tolerance policy for bad behavior by kids. Even minor offenses like fighting in school or underage drinking could mean hard time in a juvenile detention facility.
Federal prosecutors said the judges were actually getting kickbacks from private detention facilities. In return for keeping the centers full of thousands of kids, they received cash. Both judges are now serving time in federal prison. But a new documentary called "Kids for Cash" is reexamining the case with interviews with both judges and the children who were locked up.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "KIDS FOR CASH")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: For all those years, I missed high school. I never went to a prom. All my birthdays until my recent one, my 19th birthday, I was always in a placement somewhere.
RATH: Robert May directed the film, and he's also a resident of northeast Pennsylvania. He followed the constant coverage of the scandal in his area, and over the course of four years, he set out to learn more.
ROBERT MAY: Stories are never one-dimensional. There's always multidimensions to a story, and I think that's what really attracted me is how could something like this happen, and what's the behind-the-scenes side of the story.
RATH: And you managed to get on camera interviews with both judges involved in this case, Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan. What did you learn from talking to them?
MAY: Well, first we weren't even going to make the movie unless we could really tell the story from the villain and the victims' side. And, you know, when I first met with Mark Ciavarella and approached him on the idea of doing this film - of course, I didn't know these folks at all - first, I had to make sure he understood that he was the villain. And he said that he was.
Secondly, is that he ultimately agreed to do the film, but he did not want to tell his attorneys that he was actually participating in the film. And that was the same with Judge Conahan. And I think that was sort of the first peering into how important, perhaps, they thought it was for them to tell their side of the story.
RATH: And I want to talk about Mark Ciavarella as a judge, because before the scandal, he had this reputation as being this very popular judge for getting tough with juvenile crime. Now, when a kid's sent to juvenile detention, you think it's going to be for something pretty serious, like stealing a car or assaulting somebody. Could you talk about the kind of things these kids were sent away for?
MAY: Well, I can. And also, though, to your point, you know, he was elected in 1996 for his zero-tolerance position, and he was reelected again for a second 10-year term. And so the community applauded him. Schools applauded him. Police applauded him. He would go into schools, and he would warn kids, if you come before me, I will send you away.
And so when a kid came before him, and if there was a, quote, "school crime," now this could be a kid getting into a fight - in our case, we had a girl who did a fake MySpace page - and they came before him and he would say, like, do you remember me being in your school, and most of the kids did remember.
And he said, well, do you remember what I said? And some of the kids remembered, some of them didn't. And he would say, like, I said I would send you away, get him out of here. And that's pretty much what would happen.
RATH: So you go into how it came out through a federal investigation that these judges received a big cash payment from the juvenile detention facility. As you're interviewing these judges, they're maintaining all the time that these payments, they were not kickbacks, they were a finder's fee, that they should have reported them and declare them on their taxes, but they were not taking kickbacks.
MAY: That's right. Judge Ciavarella in particular said, look, you know, this was a finder's fee. We needed this center built, and look, I was always jailing kids.
MARK CIAVARELLA: I wanted these kids to think that I was the biggest SOB that ever lived. I wanted them to be scared out of their minds when they had to deal with me because I was hoping because of that that they would never put themselves in a position again where they would have to come back and deal with me.
MAY: He said: Look, I was always locking kids up, because that's what they needed. What's the big deal now? I mean, everybody was celebrating me, you know, all these years, and now they're not happy with me anymore just because I took this money? I don't think he quite grasps the connection that people are making.
RATH: So has it - beyond this one scandal - has this changed the way you look at the entire country's handling of juvenile justice?
MAY: It has, because we have screened the film all around the country in pre-released screenings to both moviegoers and also folks that are very familiar with the juvenile system. I had a judge in Washington, D.C., take me aside after he saw the film and say to me, look, I've done all these things, except I haven't taken any money.
And I think what it shows is that these kinds of treatments of children are unknown to the public, they're unknown to parents. Schools who are the biggest contributor who are actually into the juvenile system, they don't exactly know what happens to kids once they leave the school. All they know is maybe a trouble-making kid is now gone, and they don't see them again.
And I think what we see from people who sort of know the system and people who don't, we had the same reaction: they're emotional, and they're outraged. And in so many places around the country, we had people saying, that's happening here. You know, it's just that maybe there aren't millions of dollars involved. Maybe that's the difference.
RATH: That's Robert May. He's the director of the new film "Kids for Cash." He joined us from member station WVIA in Pittston, Pennsylvania. Robert, thanks so much.
MAY: Thank you for having me.