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.
Prosecutors say Luzerne County Judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan took US$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.
“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.
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 US Supreme Court’s 1967 ruling that children have a constitutional right to counsel.
The judges were scheduled to plead guilty to fraud yesterday 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, said 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 US$58 million — was later canceled by the county as exorbitant.
Robert 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.