William Ecenbarger. Kids for Cash: Two Judges, Thousands of Children, and a $2.8 Million Kickback Scheme. New York, N.Y.: The New Press, 2012.
Children with minor offenses before two judges often found themselves sentenced to PA Child Care.This facility was a for-profit juvenile prison. It saved on spending by using photographed textbooks. Children sat on backless stools and were not allowed to lie down. As one child put it, they were “locked up like an animal.” The experience stigmatized and humiliated the children. Many became depressed, lowered their life’s expectations, and faced disappointment and avoidance from others.
Children sentenced for incarceration in Luzerne County were shackled at their hands and feet. In Philadelphia and many other Pennsylvania counties, only youths considered serious safety risks are handcuffed, and only handcuffed. The decision to handcuff a child in Philadelphia is made by the Sheriff and not the Judge.
Abuses of this system were uncovered. An epileptic youth was detained without access to her medication despite protests she required the medication She experienced a grand mal seizure while incarcerated.
While before these two judges, young people were not advised of their rights. Many were shackled and detained for cries that would have received lower sentences or probation had they been adults. PA Child Care charged parents $250 for evaluating each child. In some cases, parents had to spend $400 per month for the detention.
Between 2003 and 2008 the youth incarceration rate in Luzerne County, Pa. (where these two judges presided) was seven times the statewide average youth incarceration rate. These court proceedings happened in front of numerous attorneys and witnesses with few questioning the harshness and the abuse of the children’s legal rights.
It was later disclosed that PA Child Care rewarded Judges Mark Ciaverella and Michael Conahan with kickbacks of millions of dollars for sentencing attendees to their facilities. The county paid PA Child Care for their services.
Luzerne County is a region that historically found its residents quashed by authority. People kept quiet and did not challenge authority. Mine owners bribed union officials to not cause trouble. Many union officials also were involved in organized criminal behavior. Few spoke about mining dangers until a mine collapsed resulting in deaths. Public corruption was widespread in the county. Political reform movements that reformed other parts of Pennsylvania never rose in Luzerne County. Even many applicants to be teachers had to pay bribes of$3,000 to $5,000 to obtain public teaching positions. Several county public officials maintain open friendships with organized crime figures. One historian observed that public corruption in Luzerne County has worsened recently. Old time corrupt officials took kickbacks to run a political machine that got people patronage jobs Today, the kickbacks are kept for personal use.
Ciavarella was elected a County Judge raising $450,000 in campaign contributions. As is common in judicial elections, many contributors have interests in judicial proceedings. Three office jobs went to campaign supporters.
Conahan was a private attorney for and a co-investor in a strip club with the alleged local organized crime boss. Conahan was listed as an un-indicted co-conspirator in a cocaine ring. The Judicial Conduct Board reviewed this case and did not act.
Local lawyers probably were fearful of judicial retaliation if they objected to the behavior of judges, especially as there appeared to be few active avenues to complain. The Juvenile Law Center stood up and objected to the improper incarcerations of many Luzerne County youths. They especially objected to the children being told they could not have legal representation.
Ciaverella asked his friend and mentor Rob Merick to construct a county juvenile detention center. Along with two others, one a son of a former state Supreme Court Justice, they leased the center to the County government for $37 million over 30 years. Ciaverella and Conahan received a finder’s fee of 10% of the facility’s $997,600 cost. The Court guaranteed payments of $1,314,000 annually.
The facility competing with PA Child Care, the County government’s public facility, became the target of criticism by Judge Conahan. The County facility had been inspected and approved by the state’s Public Welfare as well as the Labor and Industry Departments plus the local Health Department Conahan showed the media that the County facility lacked facilities for people with disabilities. He pointed out peeling paint, leaking pipers, cockroaches, etc. The County Commissioners, who had favored maintaining the County facility, were swayed to approve using the new for-profit facility.
Juveniles were sent to the PA Child Care Center, filling it to capacity. Some were sent without being able to speak on their own behalf, some were sent without a hearing, and many waited days in the center awaiting a hearing. Some hearings lasted just minutes. Parents could be charged thousands of dollars in detention expenses, court costs, and probation fees. Some children remained detained until fines were paid, One child remained for nine months until a $286 fine could be paid.
Ciavarela presided over a court case involving Rob Merick. Ciavarella awarded an injunction in favor of Merick without disclosing he had by that time recevied $505,000 from Merick.
A reporter from the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader learned about the juvenile sentencing practices from an outraged parent while covering a School Board where the parent complained. The press delved into the story.
PA Child Care earned 28% profit off its income. The county’s costs for juvenile detentions rose sharply. The Judicial Conduct Board heard allegations that Judge Conahan was hearing cases where his former law clerks were attorneys, which is a rule violation. It was also alleged he had employees engaged in political purposes, which is against the law. The Judicial Conduct Board tabled the matters and never acted upon them. Judge Ann Lakuta is widely suspected of having made the complaints about Conahan, The Judicial Conduct Board found that Judge Lakuta was rude and late and removed her from the bench.
A Public Welfare Department (DPW) fraud examiner determined the Commonwealth had overpaid by at least $4 million to the PA Child Care and a related Western PA Child Care. $863,000 in suspicious fees paid to Judge Conahan’s brother-in-law were flagged. The audit observed that many evaluations of children conducted by PA Child Care staff contained the same “boilerplate” language.
DPW officials also questioned the high rate of incarceration. One official who did so was reprimanded for doing so by the DPW Secretary.
A complaint was made to the Juvenile Law Center. Years earlier this Center was involved when Judge Ciavarella had failed o advise a 13 year old of her right to counsel. They discovered this happened in many other cases. A Federal investigation began.
The IRS became involved. The Times Leader wrote an expose on Ciavarella’s courtroom behavior. Conahan retired. Ciavarella stayed on the bench you agreed to no longer hear juvenile cases. The Federal government indicted both on kickback charges, Conaham pled guility, Ciaverella was tried and convicted.
State Sen. Lisa Brown warns “We cannot write off this as a horrible situation unlikely to recur. The lesson is that someone has to keep an eye on things.”
Some states required juveniles to have legal representation Many court have rules against shackling juveniles. It is known that juvenile brains have not yet formed to prevent impulsive actions. Children with problems should be identified and counseled to help them overcome their problems. Stigmatizing and shocking them with incarceration and removing them from school so they fall behind in their education works far less well and often creates more problems.