A Pennsylvania judge, Mark Ciavarella Jr., has been sentenced to 28 years in federal prison for taking a $1 million bribe from the builder of two private juvenile detention facilities. The case became known as “kids for cash” after the revelation of a massive bribery scandal that Ciavarella and another judge, Michael Conrahan, devised. According to prosecutors, Conrahan first secured contracts from the state to house juvenile offenders in the private facilities; Ciavarella then presided over the juvenile courts and filled the centers with some 4,000 youths, some as young as 10 years old and many first-time offenders, between 2003 and 2008. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has overturned about 4,000 of the convictions issued by Ciavarella, saying he violated the constitutional rights of the youths, including their right to legal counsel and the right to intelligently enter a plea.
Ciavarella’s sentencing left lasting scars on many of the youths and their families. The son of Sandy Fonzo committed suicide at the age of 23 after going in and out of Ciavarella’s courtroom. Another mother, Susan Mishanski, said her son was taken away for three months for fighting with another child; he was not told where he was being taken to. Ciavarella was also “known for his harsh and autocratic courtroom demeanor,” says the Associated Press. He was known to order that youths found delinquent “be immediately shackled, handcuffed and taken away without giving them a chance to say goodbye to their families.”
What’s more, as Care2′s Jessica P. explains in an earlier post about Ciavarella, hundreds of the children who appeared in his courtroom did not have lawyers and may not have been properly informed of their right to legal counsel:
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.
Earlier this year, Ciavarella was tried and convicted of racketeering; both he and Conrahan have been disbarred. They have also been accused of extorting hundreds of thousands of dollars from Robert Powell, the co-owner of the two facilities, PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care detention centers.
According to the Associated Press, Ciavarella has denied locking up the youths for bribes. In a 15-minute speech before the sentence was delivered, he apologized to his family, Luzerne county, the community and those juveniles whom he had convicted. While at first saying he was a “hypocrite” who did not practice what he himself preached, Ciavarella then issued an attack on the government’s case against him:
Then, in an extraordinary turnabout, Ciavarella attacked the government’s case as well as the conclusions of the state Supreme Court and the Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice, a state panel that investigated the scandal. Both said Ciavarella engaged in wholesale rights violations over a period of many years.
Ciavarella denied it.
“I did everything I was obligated to do protect these children’s rights,” he said.
He also criticized Assistant U.S. Attorney Gordon Zubrod for referring to the case as “kids for cash,” saying it sank his reputation. (Zubrod said outside court that he doesn’t remember ever calling it that.)
Zubrod had actually asked for a life sentence for Ciavarella. The former judge’s attorneys claim that he had “already been punished enough”; Ciavarella plans to appeal his conviction and sentence.
But a statement from the Juvenile Law Center in response to Ciavarella’s sentencing makes clear who truly suffered by his criminal actions, the thousands of Pennsylvania youths and their families:
“Thousands of children and families had their civil rights violated and their faith in justice all but destroyed,” said Robert Schwartz, Juvenile Law Center’s Executive Director. “We hope that today’s actions will help restore their sense of fairness and trust in the rule of law.”
For making a fake Myspace page making fun of her assistant principal — a page that she had been sure to identify as fake by including a disclaimer at the bottom saying it was — Ciavarella ordered Hillary Transue to be handcuffed and sent to one of the privately run juvenile detention centers instead of receiving a reprimand or community service. Said Transue, whose mother alerted Juvenile Law Center of the violations occurring in Luzerne County:
“The children of this community felt prostituted – traded for profit. It violated our trust, and our parents’ trust in government. And we will never fully regain our faith in the justice system unless real reforms are passed to make sure this never happens again.”
The “kids for cash” case also highlights the issues surrounding the privatization of detention facilities for juveniles, inmates and immigrants. As states including California place inmates in private facilities — and private-prison companies reap the rewards – how can we make sure that their rights are protected?
Related Care2 Coverage
Photo by James Cridland