Kids Jailed For Cash: Pennsylvania Judges Plead Guilty to Federal Fraud Charges

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


Don Cordell
Donald Cordell8 years ago

This happens to adults too, called Plea Bargaining, arrested on suspicion of dubious charges, then threatened to accept Plea Bargaining to admit guilt and get less time in prison, only the judge denies any leniancy, and throws the book at you.

Thousands put in prison every year found innocent after years of detention, because most citizens fear cops, the courts, and the judges with good reason. It is a disgrace in this nation.

I want to stop all Plea Bargaining, either prove the detainee is guilty or set them free. NO more threats that if you don't confess, we will make you hurt.

This is going to get worse when they start to detain us for demonstrating against cancelling our Constitution and Bill of Rights, and we are sent to Detention Centers (concentration camps) under the REX 84 plan.

Do not trust the police, the court appointed attorneys, the judge, or you will end up just like these kids.

Our security and rights in this nation are being destroyed to put us under Martial Law.

Attorney General and President Obama want to take away our guns. Do you realize, you can be stopped by the cops at anytime on the street, forced to submit to search, and arrested for "any" resistance to accept this treatment, when you are totally innocent of any crime, other than resisting this behavior.

When are we going to stop this? Eric Holden AG said We are Cowards, yes we are if we do not stop this treason against the 1st, 2nd, and 4th amendments.

Russell Jones
Russell Jones8 years ago

Money is the way we will fall I am so sick of greedy people selling off our land in the US to foreign countries when it should be a lease to this case.
US greed has done enough and it's still going on but I am glad some are caught.

Bruce Mason
Bruce Mason8 years ago

Privatization of prisons operated by profit oriented businesses, outside the purview of the constitutional protections, in symbiosis with a juvenile justice system marked by secrecy, cronyism, and lawyering often at its worst; all sounds like a fictional screenplay for Hollywood. The fact and reality is that the Juvenile Justice system is in shambles and is on the verge of imploding. "In the best interest" standard has become a rubric for an onslaught of constitutional violations and deprivations of human decency. In some Nebraska Juvenile Courts, juveniles on minor charges appear in court shackled in leg irons; the press is barred under the pretext of protecting the juvenile when the real object is the protection of incompetence and sloppy legal representation and judging. The constitutional right of confrontation of accusers and cross-examination is reduced to a paper blizzard of conclusionary reports replete with hearsay from absent witnesses This is American justice for many juveniles, but it is not my view of the promise that American justice held out to the world when the reformist Progressive Movement created the Juvenile Court. Suffer the children is the real standard and not In their best interest.

Silvia H.
Silvia H8 years ago

After the American Civil War and for more than 50 years, in the Southern States, African-Americans were charged of petty felonies and sent to work at mines and other manufacturing plants; officials and judges were paid by these companies, the more African-American they sent to prison the more money they got.

These private juvenile prisons are basically the same thing. I think that an investigation on private prisons should be investigated.

Beverly Caro
Bev Caro8 years ago

How can you live with yourself after sending children to jail to make money. 87 months is not nearly enough. Why do they get to plea-bargain? Did the children? Once again you see the exploitation of the poor...I'm sure their were no wealthy children sent to jail because they had no lawyer. When are we going to fix our justice system to make everyone equal under the law? It is not that way now. Maybe it never was. This greed and corruption in our Country runs so deep...It is going to take more than President Obama to root it out!! We, the regular people, are going to have to help.

Black T.
Blacktiger P8 years ago

$$$$$$$$$$$talking, surely there should be a full investigation of ALL juvenile privately owned detention facilities on a Federal scale. BUT I guess that is a pipe dream eh? All those detention centers through out the country are hungry for any and all protestors [for any reason] and unless these facilities are brought to Obama's attention, there will be about 30% of the population incarcerated.[and we all know what race and color will be scooped up]

Junior W.
Junior Walker8 years ago

I always thought this was common practice in the detention business, Dekalb County Jail in Atlanta has a chief warden that's related to the people the state rents the facility from and his niece is the nurse and these guys have no problem in increasing the head-count by readily detaining people in immigration matters as they collect from the state for each individual housed.

Christoph Wuth
Christoph Wuth8 years ago

Ciavarella, your next job at the Mafia is waiting for you after you leave jail. You'll do much better there.

Irene Waite
Irene Waite8 years ago

Waite, I.

Surely because the Judges were found guilty of some misconduct ( not light misconducts either) there should be a retrial. Giving the girl a better chance of a lesser and more appriate sentence

Keith Openshaw
Keith Openshaw8 years ago

What prison have THEY been sent to? Not one in public ownership surely, where they might meet other innocent people. You can bet your sweet bippy that they will not come into contact with "ordinary" felons that have done far less harm to the lives of others.