The Associated Press by MARK SCOLFORO - August 8, 2009
HARRISBURG, PA — A special commission was established Friday to study the juvenile-justice corruption scandal at a Northeastern Pennsylvania courthouse, an episode the state’s chief justice described as unparalleled in U.S. history. Gov. Ed Rendell signed legislation that created the 11-member Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice. It has until May to try to determine how the Luzerne County problems arose and recommend ways to prevent them from recurring. Two former county judges pleaded guilty in February to wire fraud and tax evasion in what prosecutors said was a scheme to improperly force juvenile defendants into privately run detention centers in exchange for kickbacks of $2.6 million. A judge threw out the former judges’ plea agreements last week, saying Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan had not adequately accepted responsibility for their actions. Those plea deals had called for sentences of 87 months. “I have never, not only in this state, never in the United States seen a bribery case of this magnitude, and the effect that it’s had on the children’s lives is astounding,” said Chief Justice Ronald Castille, who attended the bill-signing ceremony in the Capitol. The commission’s work will be separate from the review of about 6,000 juvenile convictions that the court system has undertaken, which has already resulted in the expungement of about 800 cases that involve relatively minor charges. Many of the children were locked up after appearing in court without lawyers.
Civil litigation over the judges’ actions also is under way, as about 400 individuals ranging from their teens to their early 20s have filed suit over the alleged violations of their constitutional rights. Castille called it a “system failure” in the county that also extended to court administration and lawyers. “It is possible ... that every record of every juvenile ever dealt with by Ciavarella in that county will be expunged,” Castille said. “But our court wants to make sure that this can never happen again.” Four members will be appointed by legislative leaders, three by Rendell and four by Castille, who said the chairman was likely to be Superior Court Judge John M. Cleland of McKean County. The commission will have subpoena power, and its members will serve without pay. House Majority Leader Todd Eachus, D-Butler Township, who sponsored the legislation, said the scandal had done “incalculable damage to the scales of justice” and described the commission’s work as “the beginning of the healing for the children of Luzerne County.” Ciavarella told a TV station earlier this week that he was sorry for what he did but had not taken cash to send kids to jail. “I didn’t do anything wrong relative to any juvenile. I never took a dime for sending a kid away,” Ciavarella said.
CLICK HERE TO SEE RELATED STORY, "Judges Accused of Jailing Kids for Cash."