‘Kids For Cash’ Review: A New Kind Of ‘Scared Straight!’ For the Post-Columbine Generation

By  · Published on March 2nd, 2014

In the 35 years since Scared Straight! won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, there have been numerous follow-ups and a brand of juvenile rehabilitation programs named after it. Have the films and the efforts they’ve inspired worked? That’s up for debate in some areas, but regardless it’s worth noting their one major limitation: they aim to teach kids that if they do something criminal they’ll go to prison. Well, there’s a new doc that goes further to send a scarier message to our youth. Robert May’s Kids For Cash offers the cynical idea that kids can be completely or relatively innocent and still wind up incarcerated, because you never know when a mishandling of justice may occur for someone of any age.

Specifically, this doc is about a scandal involving corrupt judges in Pennsylvania who sent thousands of youths to a detention center from which they received millions of dollars. The verdict on whether that was kickback money incentivizing the conviction of all those minors is both complicated and, I suppose, kind of a spoiler (never mind that it’s public record). And May was able to interview both of the men, Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan, meaning we get to hear their side of the story quite candidly. This is yet another doc that stands out by giving a voice to its villains, although in this case, particularly Ciavarella really tries to make the case that he isn’t a bad guy at all, maybe just someone who ironically lacked good judgement.


Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.