With parents increasingly on edge about violent delinquency in the wake of the Columbine school shooting, Pennsylvania judge Mark Ciavarella promised that he would do everything in his power to scare the kids in his district straight. This resulted in one of the largest waves of youth incarceration ever seen in America. Didn’t matter if the offenders got into a fight, unknowingly owned a stolen scooter or created a jokey MySpace page about a school administrator. The verdict was almost always the same: off to juvie hall in shackles. Yet it quickly emerged that Ciavarella’s hands were not entirely clean themselves.
As Robert May’s moving documentary shows, in scattershot yet engrossing fashion, this wasn’t a simple case of overly harsh sentencing, but a systemic tragedy whose echoes are still being felt by all involved. May speaks to several of the kids who found themselves on the wrong side of Ciavarella’s gavel, their lives forever marked by social anxiety, PTSD or worse. The filmmaker also widens his scope to take in the testimonies of numerous Luzerne County residents, like reporter Terrie Morgan-Besecker, who relentlessly followed the case, as well as the advocacy group that sparked federal involvement. May’s biggest get, however, is Ciavarella himself—a man forever rationalizing his shady actions, who emerges as a more complexly tragic figure than you’d think possible.
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