Nutbag Judges: Jailing Kids For $$$
In Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, the juvenile court system was once a model of efficency: efficent corruption, that is. An accused minor would be brought in, often without a lawyer (violating the 1967 Supreme Court ruling gaurenteeing minors the right to counsel), and given a "speedy trial" lasting only minutes. Following the McTrial, these youths were sentenced to detention centers for even the most minor of offenses and often against the recommendations of probation officers assigned to the cases. Many had never been arrested before.
It was fast. It was uniform. And it was making the judges stinking rich.
Two of those nutbag judges, Luzerne County Judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan, were charged on Januuary 26 with taking $2.6 million dollars in payoffs between 2003 and 2006 to send teens to one of two privately run youth detention centers run by PA Child Care LLC and its sister company, Western PA Child Care LLC. Shortly after charges were brought to bear, both men were removed from the bench by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. They pleaded guilty to fraud today in federal court, earning them sentences of more than seven years in jail.
Although Ciavarella, age 58, denies he recieved kickbacks for sentencing minors to the two detention centers in question, he penned a letter in which he admitted he "disgraced his judgeship." The judge, who presided over Luzerne County’s juvenile court for 12 years, also wrote: “My actions have destroyed everything I worked to accomplish and I have only myself to blame.”
Conahan, age 56, has thus far refused to comment on the case.
As of yet, no one associated with the youth detention centers have been charged. The investigation is on-going. Mark Sheppard, attorney for Robert J. Powell (who co-owned PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care until June), insists his client was a victim of extortion. “Bob Powell never solicited a nickel from these judges and really was a victim of their demands,” he said. “These judges made it very plain to Mr. Powell that he was going to be required to pay certain monies.”
In addition to removing the robes of the judges, the high court has launched an investigation to determine whether any of the cases involve warrant the action. Hundreds or perhaps even thousands of juvenile offenders' records could potentially be expunged.
“I’ve never encountered, and I don’t think that we will in our lifetimes, a case where literally thousands of kids’ lives were just tossed aside in order for a couple of judges to make some money,” said Marsha Levick, an attorney with the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, which is representing hundreds of youths sentenced in Wilkes-Barre.
Detention centers are not uncommon in Pennsylvania. Counties contract with the privately-run centers, alloting them either a fixed overall fee or a certain amount per youth, per day. In Luzerne County, Conahan is accused of shutting down the county-run juvenile prison in 2002. He then assisted the two private companies in securing tens of millions of dollars in contracts, a percentage of which was dependent on the number of juvenile offenders residing in the centers. PA Child Care, for example, was awared a 20-year contract worth an estimated $58 million (this contract was later canceled by the county as exorbitant).
Ciaverella has been under fire from area youth advocacy groups for several years. The groups accused Ciavarella of violating the constitutional rights of children. The judge sent a quarter of his juvenile defendants to detention centers from 2002 to 2006, compared with a statewide rate of one in 10.
They thought he was cruel. They thought he was harsh.
Now, they know why.