Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Pennsylvania Businessman Sentenced to 18 Months in “Kids for Cash” Kickback Scandal

In November 2011, a Pennsylvania U.S. District Court sentenced the former owner of two for-profit juvenile detention centers to 18 months in prison for his role in a kickback scheme that included two judges. The scandal, involving the juvenile justice system in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, came to be known nationally as “Kids for Cash.” [See: PLN, June 2010, p.26; Nov. 2009, p.42; May 2009, p.20].

The owner of the two juvenile facilities was high-powered businessman and attorney Robert J. Powell. Once Luzerne County closed its dilapidated public juvenile detention center, Judges Mark A. Ciavarella, Jr. and Michael T. Conahan supported sending youthful offenders to Powell’s for-profit facilities.

Powell, 52, testified at Ciavarella’s trial in February 2011 that the judges’ support came at a cost. He said the two jurists extorted him and made him pay them more than $750,000 between 2003 and 2007. Over that same time period, Powell’s company received around $30 million from Luzerne County to house juvenile offenders, many of whom were sent to the facilities by Judge Ciavarella.

“Even though they were in positions of power and influence, I had the ultimate ability to do the right thing and say no. I was wrong for giving in and paying them and will forever bear the burden of having done so,” Powell wrote in a letter to U.S. District Court Judge Edwin M. Kosik.

Powell was sentenced on November 4, 2011 to 18 months in federal prison after pleading guilty to misprision of a felony and accessory after the fact to conspiracy to commit income tax evasion, plus one year on supervised release and a $60,000 fine. See: United States v. Powell, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Penn.), Case No. 3:09-cr-00189-EMK.

Prosecutors had asked for a 12- to 18-month sentence due to Powell’s cooperation in the case, which included wearing a wire to record incriminating conversations with Conahan and Ciavarella. In addition to his testimony at Ciavarella’s trial, Powell also wore a wire against a third Luzerne County judge, Michael T. Toole, in an unrelated case. Toole, 51, pleaded guilty to corruption and tax-related charges and was sentenced on April 2, 2011 to serve 2½ years in federal prison.

“Mr. Powell’s cooperation was vital to the success of this investigation and the prosecutions that resulted from it,” said U.S. Attorney Peter Smith. “Without Mr. Powell’s vital cooperation, it might have been a much more difficult, much longer, if not impossible, process.”

Powell’s attorney, Joseph D’Andrea, sought a more lenient sentence based on his client’s “extraordinary assistance” to federal prosecutors. “Bob found himself being muscled and pressured by two very corrupt and evil men who sat as judges in Luzerne County,” he told Judge Kosik.

While acknowledging Powell’s cooperation, Judge Kosik said Powell had benefited financially from the “cabal” that ran the county. “He could have told the judges to go to hell,” Kosik noted. Prior to being sentenced, Ciavarella criticized Powell as “a liar and a self-centered individual who would say and do anything to protect himself.”

Powell surrendered his law license and said in his letter that he had lost his home and ability to earn a living, and brought shame on his family. “I would not wish this on any human being. I have been punished in ways no one could imagine or conceive. I have been financially and professionally ruined,” he wrote, adding that he was “both scared and selfish.”

Of course, many of the thousands of juveniles who were sent to Powell’s for-profit facilities due to the kickback scheme had their lives ruined, too. At least one committed suicide.

For their roles, Ciavarella and Conahan, who received a total of $2.8 million in kickbacks, are serving 28 and 17½ years in prison, respectively. [See: PLN, Nov. 2011, p.14]. Robert K. Mericle, the builder of the detention centers, who also was charged in connection with the bribery scheme, pleaded guilty and awaits sentencing. Mericle has “voluntarily contributed the sum of $2,150,000 for the express purpose of funding programs for the health, safety and general welfare of the children of Luzerne County,” presumably in an effort to get a lighter prison sentence.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court vacated thousands of Ciavarella’s juvenile convictions, saying he ran his courtroom with “complete disregard for the constitutional rights of the juveniles,” including depriving them of the right to counsel and the right to knowingly enter guilty pleas. In order to keep Powell’s private juvenile detention facilities full, Ciavarella would routinely convict juvenile offenders who were not represented by counsel and order them to serve time for minor infractions.

Notably missing from this entire episode has been any sense of responsibility from either the prosecutor’s office or the criminal defense bar of Luzerne County, which both colluded in the mass imprisonment of children as the judges and private prison officials profited at the expense of taxpayers.

Sources: Washington Post,

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

United States v. Powell