This will be the third time I’ve written about former Luzerne County judge Mark A. Ciavarella, Jr. who was convicted of racketeering and conspiracy by a federal jury in Scranton, Pennsylvania on February 18, 2011. The case involves Ciavarella and another former Luzerne County judge, Michael T. Conahan, and their sentencing of juveniles to a local detention facility from which they received $2.6 million in kickbacks.
This particular case is so alarming because it demonstrates the lack of civil rights protection afforded minors in the real world. The juveniles sentenced by Ciavarella and Conahan were by and large accused of misdemeanors and were literally pushed through the Pennsylvania judicial system. Ciavarella has been convicted, and Conahan has pled guilty. The case will be noted as one of the worst judicial scandals this country has ever seen.
Ciavarella and Conahan were accused of essentially:
- Taking almost $2.6 million in illegal payments from the builder of a juvenile detention center in Luzerne County
- Sending juveniles to the detention center for minor violations, in order to keep the detention center filled, thus earning this case the nickname of “Cash for Kids.”
The judges “cashed in” on the misfortune of youthful defenders even when probation officers and counselors recommended lesser sanctions against the youths. For monetary compensation said to be in the range of $2.6 million, the judges ruled that many youths who had committed minor offenses be warehoused at the newly constructed Pennsylvania Child Care Center in Pittston, Pa.
Things were different in the Luzerne County juvenile courtroom, and everyone knew it. Proceedings on average took less than two minutes. Detention center workers were told in advance how many juveniles to expect at the end of each day — even before hearings to determine their innocence or guilt. Lawyers told families not to bother hiring them. They would not be allowed to speak anyway.
“The judge’s whim is all that mattered in that courtroom,” said Marsha Levick, the legal director of the Juvenile Law Center, a child advocacy organization in Philadelphia, which began raising concerns about the court to state authorities in 1999. “The law was basically irrelevant.”
The prosecutors in the case were quoted as saying Ciavarella “used children as pawns to enrich himself.”
Regardless of the Ciavarella conviction, and Conahan’s plea, this case brings to light the fact that juveniles were sent to the local Luzerne County detention center for minor violations, and typically because they were persuaded to waive their right to counsel. It seems obvious that minors accused of crimes, and their parents, should always consult with a lawyer before appearing in court. Even if cost is a factor, there are always avenues for inexpensive or free legal help.As lawyers, we assume the public is aware of their legal rights. We assume that at the very least the public knows to ask questions about their rights. Yet that is sometimes an incorrect assumption, especially with minors, who may find themselves intimidated by the legal process confronting them, and ill equipped to deal with it. Of course, the sad irony is that juveniles who were in Ciavarella’s and Conahan’s courtrooms were some of the most vulnerable members of our society, for this very reason.
Ciavarella and Conahan had no interest in protecting the kids that appeared before them, and the system failed them. With proper legal representation, many of these kids could have been spared their juvenile records and stays in the juvenile detention facility. The American Bar Asoociation had this commentary when the case hit the news, which is noteworthy.
Though lawyers, politicians and parents are quick to condemn Ciavarella, questions continue to swirl about how the “kids for cash” scandal could have occurred. Not only do authorities say it went on for as many as five years; they also claim it was so blatant that they are astonished almost no one—including the lawyers who regularly practiced there—were willing to stand up and speak out about what was going on in Luzerne County. What is described in interviews, public records and court documents is a culture in which lawyers famously went along to get along rather than push back against a judge who openly and notoriously violated the law he was sworn to uphold—even when those violations affected the lives of children.
Parents or minors who read this, here's my pledge. I do not practice in the area of criminal law. I am a Pennsylvania personal injury lawyer. But, if you need a criminal lawyer in a case, I will find you a lawyer at no cost or at a very low fee. After what happened in Luzerne County, my brothers and sisters at the bar can't wait to make sure every Pennsylvania juvenile gets proper representation.