WNEP by Ryan Coyle - January 25, 2010
A judge has thrown out all juvenile cases that were handled by former Luzerne County judge Mark Ciavarella between 2003 and 2008. For many it was a big sigh of relief. For others,it was a reminder of the corruption that troubles the county. Either way, Luzerne County officials feel like they are moving forward. A Luzerne County judge ruled Monday that 5,000 juvenile cases overseen by disgraced former judge Mark Ciavarella will all be thrown out. The move comes after District Attorney Jackie Musto Carroll announced she would not retry the accused. It comes on the eve of the one-year anniversary of the plea agreement made between Ciavarella and federal prosecutors. That agreement has since been withdrawn. Today county officials said the ruling is another step forward. "I don't think that something like this can happen ever again. That it happened in Luzerne County is very tragic. We are an example that shows how something should not be done. We know that here, no one is ever going to have to teach us that lesson," said District Attorney Jackie Musto Carroll. "I think that we have set the gold standard for cleaning up violations of kids rights and the corruption that took place here," said Marsha Levick of the Juvenile Law Center. The 5,000 cases were vacated from the state's highest court last year but now the cases have been thrown out, meaning there is no chance for them to be retried. That ruling pleased many who felt they got a bad break from the county. Craig Daniels of Nanticoke was among those whose record was cleared. "Everything from 2003 and on got dropped so I'm pretty happy about that," Daniels said. Others weren't so confident that this will fix the problems facing the county. Florence Myers is the mother of two children who have gone through the justice system. "I don't feel like it's still healed. I feel there's still a lot of injustice that's still here. I don't feel trust still here," Myers said. Chief public defender Basil Russin said changes have been made in the how they approach the juvenile court.
Pa. judges accused of jailing kids for cash
Judges allegedly took $2.6 million in payoffs to put juveniles in lockups
The Associated Press
WILKES-BARRE, Pa. - For years, the juvenile court system in Wilkes-Barre operated like a conveyor belt: Youngsters were brought before judges without a lawyer, given hearings that lasted only a minute or two, and then sent off to juvenile prison for months for minor offenses. The explanation, prosecutors say, was corruption on the bench. In one of the most shocking cases of courtroom graft on record, two Pennsylvania judges have been charged with taking millions of dollars in kickbacks to send teenagers to two privately run youth detention centers. “I’ve never encountered, and I don’t think that we will in our lifetimes, a case where literally thousands of kids’ lives were just tossed aside in order for a couple of judges to make some money,” said Marsha Levick, an attorney with the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, which is representing hundreds of youths sentenced in Wilkes-Barre. Prosecutors say Luzerne County Judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan took $2.6 million in payoffs to put juvenile offenders in lockups run by PA Child Care LLC and a sister company, Western PA Child Care LLC. The judges were charged on Jan. 26 and removed from the bench by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court shortly afterward. No company officials have been charged, but the investigation is still going on. The high court, meanwhile, is looking into whether hundreds or even thousands of sentences should be overturned and the juveniles’ records expunged. Among the offenders were teenagers who were locked up for months for stealing loose change from cars, writing a prank note and possessing drug paraphernalia. Many had never been in trouble before. Some were imprisoned even after probation officers recommended against it. Many appeared without lawyers, despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1967 ruling that children have a constitutional right to counsel.
'I have disgraced my judgeship'
The judges are scheduled to plead guilty to fraud Thursday in federal court. Their plea agreements call for sentences of more than seven years behind bars. Ciavarella, 58, who presided over Luzerne County’s juvenile court for 12 years, acknowledged last week in a letter to his former colleagues, “I have disgraced my judgeship. My actions have destroyed everything I worked to accomplish and I have only myself to blame.” Ciavarella, though, has denied he got kickbacks for sending youths to prison. Conahan, 56, has remained silent about the case. Many Pennsylvania counties contract with privately run juvenile detention centers, paying them either a fixed overall fee or a certain amount per youth, per day. In Luzerne County, prosecutors say, Conahan shut down the county-run juvenile prison in 2002 and helped the two companies secure rich contracts worth tens of millions of dollars, at least some of that dependent on how many juveniles were locked up. One of the contracts — a 20-year agreement with PA Child Care worth an estimated $58 million — was later canceled by the county as exorbitant. The judges are accused of taking payoffs between 2003 and 2006.
Allegations of extortion
Robert J. Powell co-owned PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care until June. His attorney, Mark Sheppard, said his client was the victim of an extortion scheme. “Bob Powell never solicited a nickel from these judges and really was a victim of their demands,” he said. “These judges made it very plain to Mr. Powell that he was going to be required to pay certain monies.” For years, youth advocacy groups complained that Ciavarella was ridiculously harsh and ran roughshod over youngsters’ constitutional rights. Ciavarella sent a quarter of his juvenile defendants to detention centers from 2002 to 2006, compared with a statewide rate of one in 10. The criminal charges confirmed the advocacy groups’ worst suspicions and have called into question all the sentences he pronounced. Hillary Transue did not have an attorney, nor was she told of her right to one, when she appeared in Ciavarella’s courtroom in 2007 for building a MySpace page that lampooned her assistant principal. Her mother, Laurene Transue, worked for 16 years in the child services department of another county and said she was certain Hillary would get a slap on the wrist. Instead, Ciavarella sentenced her to three months; she got out after a month, with help from a lawyer. “I felt so disgraced for a while, like, what do people think of me now?” said Hillary, now 17 and a high school senior who plans to become an English teacher.
'I was completely destroyed'