Hillary Transue never expected that a simple high-school joke would result in a three-month sentence at a juvenile detention facility. Transue, an exceptional student who had never been in trouble at school, created a fake Myspace page making fun of her assistant principal. Just to be sure people knew it was a joke she even included a disclaimer at the bottom of the page. Instead of a reprimand, or even community service, Judge Michael Ciavarella Jr. ordered her handcuffed and taken away immediately to a privately-run detention facility as her horrified parents helplessly watched.
As it turns out, Transue is just one of an estimated 5,000 juvenile offenders who appeared before Judge Caivarella and ended up at one of two privately run detention centers in Pennsylvania. Many of these youth were first-time offenders; many still remain in the facilities. Astonished by these numbers, juvenile law advocates began investigating. What they uncovered has shocked northeastern Pennsylvania.
Two weeks ago Judge Ciavarella and his colleague Judge Conahan pled guilty in federal court to wire tap fraud and income tax fraud for taking more than 2.6 million dollars in kickbacks to send juveniles to these facilities. According to prosecutors, Conahan secured contracts from the state for these facilities to house juvenile offenders, while Ciavarella was responsible for carrying out the sentencing that would keep these centers filled. The two tried to conceal payments from the facilities by having them routed through a company they control based in Florida.
Prosecutors detailed the case against the judges. In 2002, Conahan served as presiding judge responsible for setting the court budget, and Ciavarella oversaw the juvenile courts. Together they concocted a scheme to shut down the county-run juvenile detention center, arguing that it was in poor condition and chronically mismanaged. They said that the county had no choice but to send its juvenile offenders to these newly constructed, privately run facilities. From 2002 through at least 2007, as many as 5000 offenders were sent to these facilities.
According to the nonprofit Juvenile Law Center, who plans to file a class-action lawsuit this week on behalf of those children who were victims of this corruption, the kickback scandal illustrates a major problem in the juvenile justice system in Pennsylvania and across the country. Hundreds of the children who appeared before Ciavarella did not have lawyers.
In 1967, the Supreme Court ruled that children have a right to counsel, yet in Pennsylvania and many other states, children and their parents may appear without counsel if they complete a waiver. In Pennsylvania, those teens who waived counsel were at greater risk of being sent to a detention center than those with attorneys, says the Juvenile Law Center. According to their report, about 50 percent of the children who waived counsel before Ciavarella were sent to detention facilities, compared with the 8.4 percent of juveniles across other parts of the state. Significant questions remain as to whether Ciavarella properly informed the children and their parents of their rights, as well as the consequences for appearing without counsel, prior to seeking their waiver.
Privatizing detention facilities is popular among states as they look for ways to manage deficit-heavy budgets and trim costs. Yet these facilities lack the transparency required by state-run facilities. Private detention centers do not go through the same inspections and audits as state facilities, and they operate on a for-profit basis, leading many to question whether or not they are even appropriate for juveniles.
Ciavarella and Conahan have been disbarred and have agreed to serve 87 months in prison under their plea deals. The Juvenile Law Center continues to press for justice for those children who were victims in this corruption scheme. For more information about the Center, or for information concerning ways to get involved, click here.
Prosecutors in Pennsylvania continue the investigation into those running the facilities, and the Juvenile Law Center remains fixed in its pursuit of justice for its clients. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has appointed a special master to investigate the full extent of the corruption and violation of children’s rights. In the meantime the issue of privatizing detention facilities remains. As states balance the demands of governing in the midst of economic crisis though, one thing is clear. There can be no balance of legitimate law-enforcement concerns on the backs of our children.
C. Paul Jennewein