Former judge Mark A. Ciavarella, Jr., 62, who presided over the juvenile court system in Luzerne County, brought national attention to the “kids for cash” scandal and highlighted what many legal experts say is a dangerous practice in juvenile justice proceedings – children appearing in court and pleading guilty to crimes without representation by attorneys.
Prosecutors alleged that Ciavarella had sentenced thousands of juveniles to be confined in two private detention centers – PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care. He was paid almost $1 million for sending youths as young as ten years old to the facilities, many for first-time or minor offenses. The state of Pennsylvania has since expunged more than 5,000 juvenile criminal records in cases handled by Ciavarella. [See: PLN, June 2010, p.26; Nov. 2009, p.42; May 2009, p.20].
According to Laurence H. Tribe, a constitutional law expert, “It was a terrible lesson. It highlighted the dangers for juveniles who don’t know their rights, haven’t talked to a lawyer, and are urged by overburdened courts to take a plea. Once that happens, future opportunities for the child are essentially gone.”
The U.S. Attorney’s office, through Assistant U.S. Attorney Gordon Zubrod, described Ciavarella’s actions over a seven-year period as a plot to enrich himself. The prosecution alleged that the judge had approached a Luzerne County lawyer and property developer about building a private detention center for the county, shutting off the flow of offenders to the existing county-operated juvenile facility.
Ciavarella was sentenced to 28 years in federal prison on August 11, 2011 after a jury convicted him of 12 counts of racketeering, bribery and conspiracy. He was acquitted of 27 other counts. Although defiant in arguing that he did nothing wrong, Ciavarella said he blamed “no one but myself” prior to being sentenced.
Another former Luzerne County judge, Michael T. Conahan, 59, who controlled the courthouse budget, cooperated with prosecutors and pleaded guilty in 2009 to racketeering conspiracy charges. He was accused of receiving around $1 million in bribes as part of the “kids for cash” scandal and was sentenced to 17½ years in federal prison on September 23, 2011. “The system is not corrupt,” he stated. “I was corrupt.” Which implies that the prosecutors, judges, criminal defense lawyers, county commissioners and court room personnel who witnessed the mass imprisonment of thousands of children and did nothing are blameless and not complicit in the matter. A system that ignores corruption at this level aids and abets the individual corruption.
Conahan and Ciavarella are also subject to a $2.8 million criminal forfeiture action. According to Zubrod, “They turned the Court of Common Pleas into a criminal enterprise.” Robert Powell, an attorney who co-owned the private juvenile detention centers, and Robert Mericle, the developer who built them, have not yet been sentenced.
Sources: New York Times, Huffington Post, www.timesleader.com, www.rt.com, www.cbsnews.com
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