What “Kids for Cash” Can Teach Us About Juvenile Justice

In late October, the Coalition for Public Safety hosted an event on the impact of incarcerating juveniles. The event included a screen of Kids for Cash, a groundbreaking documentary that details a scandal that rocked Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. Following the screening, Robert May, the producer and director of the documentary; Marsha Levick of the Juvenile Law Center; Jennifer Bellamy of the American Civil Liberties Union; and yours truly discussed the documentary and efforts to reform the juvenile justice system.

Back in August, I wrote about Kids for Cash after watching it for the first time and the broader topic of juvenile justice. After hearing the stories of the children who were the victims of this scandal, which involved the construction of a private juvenile detention center for kickbacks to judges who sent thousands of children to the facility, often for relatively minor offenses. These children were treated as commodities.

Justin Bodnar, for example, was sent to juvenile detention when he was 12 years old for using obscene language during an incident with another student’s mother. It put his sent his life in a downward spiral. It was in juvenile where he tried marijuana and heroin for the first time. Now in his early 20s, Bodnar is trying to get his life back on track. His story is just one of several told in the documentary. Others include Hillary Transue, who created a fake MySpace page to lampoon a teacher, and Ed Kenzakoski, a high school wrestler who had drug paraphernalia in his truck.

Kenzakoski never recovered from the experience. He became a different person and got into trouble again, this time as an adult. He took his life in 2010. Perhaps one of the most powerful and tear-jerking moments in the documentary is when a clip of his mother, Sandy Fonzo, is seen yelling at one of the judges prosecuted for the scandal. "Do you remember me? Do you remember my son, an all-star wrestler?" she screamed at Judge Mark Ciavarella. "He’s gone! He shot himself in the heart."

Often, people are quick to say that juvenile who make mistakes should be taught a tough lesson early on about crime and punishment.The stories of most of those featured in Kids for Cash may be unusual in that they were prosecuted for minor or questionable offenses, but most young people sentenced to some form of detention are status offenders, meaning that they have committed offenses that would not be crimes if they were adults.

A 2013 Vera Institute study notes that of 10,400 cases, 36 percent of status offenses were for skipping school, 22 percent involved liquor violations, 11 percent were related to running away from home, and 10 percent involved curfew violations. These are mistakes that can be handled in ways that do not involve sentences to juvenile facilities. Intervention programs like those implemented in Texas and Ohio are a more effective and less costly means to rehabilitate or reform juvenile offenders.

As I said on the panel after the screening of the documentary, it would have been easy for my life take a different path. I lost my father at a young age and struggled with anger problems and depression throughout the rest of my childhood and into my 20s, when I finally dealt with my father’s death. Two of my relatives had very similar experiences, both losing their fathers when they were in their youths. One became an alcoholic, and the other turned to drugs. The latter, however, managed to straighten out his life and started a prison ministry and halfway house for adult offenders who are trying to put their lives back on the right course.

Not long after my father passed away, I got caught shoplifting. Thankfully, despite my attitude toward security, the store manager did not press charges and let me go. Nevertheless, it was a wake-up call, one that kept my life from going in an entirely different direction. Outside of the aforementioned incident, I had a great mother who kept me on the right path and I stayed out of trouble for the rest of my childhood. The worst thing she really had to worry about by the time I graduated from high school was my staying out too late with my bandmates.

Again, I was lucky. Not everyone has the same positive influences and family support that I had when I was going through a very tough time in my life. Really, anyone of us could have been one of the children who became victims in the "kids for cash" scandal, which is why we have to approach juvenile justice in a very different way, such as evidenced-based programs designed to keep young offenders from becoming repeat offenders and allowing them to seek expungement of their records when they have completed their sentences. This will allow them to pursue educational and employment opportunities that they may have otherwise been denied with a record hanging over their heads.