In a case that captured the nationâ€™s attention, a federal jury last month returned a verdict against a former Pennsylvania juvenile court judge charged with taking millions of dollars in kickbacks from the owner of for-profit juvenile detention facilities. Mark Ciavarella was convicted on 12 of 39 counts, including racketeering, racketeering conspiracy, mail fraud, money laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the U.S. and filing false tax returns. The jury also found that he must forfeit the $997,600 â€œfinderâ€™s feeâ€ he received from the developers of private juvenile detention centers. Another former judge charged in the case, Michael T. Conahan, pleaded guilty to a single racketeering charge last year and is awaiting sentence.
The case, an alarming story of judicial corruption and failures throughout the justice system that lasted for years, should raise a question in the minds of Californians: Could it happen here?
The Pennsylvania Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice was created in 2009 to investigate the circumstances that led to the â€œkids for cashâ€ scandal in Luzerne County. The commissionâ€™s final report, written in the captivating style of a John Grisham novel, was issued last May, after a thorough investigation and 11 days of hearings.
The two men involved in the scandal were charged with participating in a scheme in which Conahan, while presiding judge of Luzerne County, was instrumental in closing a county-run juvenile detention center and contracting with privately owned detention facilities for the placement of juvenile offenders. According to federal prosecutors, this arrangement and subsequent actions, including Ciavarella sentencing juvenile offenders to the facilities, resulted in the judges receiving more than $2 million in illegal payoffs from the owner and builder of the facilities.
While presiding over juvenile court, Ciavarella sentenced juvenile offenders to out-of-home placement at a far higher rate than any other county in the state, at the same time he was allegedly taking money from attorney and close friend Robert Powell, who owned the detention facilities. In a county with less than 3 percent of Pennsylvaniaâ€™s population, Ciavarella was responsible for 22 percent of the stateâ€™s placements in 2003. Juveniles were often punished for minor offenses that would not normally result in detention. For example, a 13-year-old boy with no prior record spent 48 days in detention for throwing a piece of steak at his motherâ€™s boyfriend during an argument. According to the report, Ciavarella ruled his court with an iron fist in a manner described as â€œDickensian,â€ â€œharsh, autocratic and arbitrary.â€ His hard-line â€œzero-toleranceâ€ stance often took the form of sentencing by formula rather than individual evaluation.
In addition to his Draconian sentencing practices, Ciavarella routinely deprived juveniles of their constitutional right to counsel. As a result, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court vacated the adjudications of all juveniles who appeared before Ciavarella over a five-year period.