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Kids in Cuffs

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Pity the child who ended up before Judge Mark Ciavarella Jr., head of juvenile court in Wilkes-Barre. Ciavarella, elected to the Luzerne County bench as a "tough love" advocate, was notorious for giving out long sentences for minor offenses.

There was 13-year-old Eric who took his mother's car for a joy ride and crashed it. His mother filed charges only because her insurance company refused to consider her claim unless she pressed charges. Ciavarella gave Eric two years.

There was 11-year-old Ryan who got into a fight with his mom and left home without her permission. When his mother responded by locking him out of the house, he called police. When they arrived, the officer charged him with harassment. The boy was fined $485. The mother refused to pay.  Ryan was brought before Ciavarella who asked him: Do you have $485.50?

The boy shook his head no. Ryan spent two months in jail.

A 15-year-old boy was sent away three months for pushing a classmate into a locker at school. A 13-year-old girl was brought before the judge for fighting on a school bus. When Ciavarella asked her why she did it, she started to cry.

He sent her away for three months for not answering his question.


Life in Ciavarella's courtroom was a hellish experience.  Parents would walk into the room thinking their child would get probation. Instead, the teen was sentenced to a jail term and immediately handcuffed, shackled around the ankles, and led away. Some parents were too shocked to speak. One collapsed in grief. Many of them had signed documents, handed to them by probation officers, waiving their rights to be represented by an attorney, because they were led to believe the outcome would be probation.

What was the public reaction to these severe sentences?

As Bill Ecenbarger reveals in his new book, Kids for Cash, the public loved it.

Ciavarella was widely praised as a non-nonsense judge. Local school officials were especially happy because he provided them with a way to get rid of troublesome students.

That 14-year-old who won't behave? Send him off to a wilderness camp for four months to cool him off.

What the good folks in Luzerne Court did not know was the Ciavarella, a paragon of justice, was also corrupt. He took payments from the developer of a for-profit juvenile detention facility in nearby Pittston for, um, referring cases to the center. Ciavarella split the money with Michael Conahan, the county's president judge, who mounted a campaign to close the county's existing juvenile facility so they could funnel kids to PA Child Care's 48-bed Pittstown jail.

When Pittston became overcrowded, the same company built a second facility in Butler County, which is 230 miles from Wilkes-Barre, and kids where sent there. The judges got bribes called "finder fees" for that, too.

In all, Ciavarella and Conahan took $2.7 million from the developers of the detention facilities, most of it laundered through "rental" of Florida condos they bought; some of it delivered in cash tucked inside FedEx boxes -- when it absolutely, positively had to be there overnight.

Ecenbarger, a former Inquirer reporter who was brought back to cover Ciavarella's and Conahan's trials for the paper, decided there was more to the story than the venality of the judges. He was right. 

As Ecenbarger reveals it also was about a culture of Luzerne County, where nepotism and bribe-taking are common and corruption is greeted with a shrug.

It also is about a culture of silence. When Ciavarella was running roughshod over the basic rights of children -- reading their supposedly private files, getting them to sign waivers to their rights to attorneys -- the court staff, the prosecutors and even the public defender acquiesced, never daring to complain.

This is an important book -- not simply because it is an expertly done telling of this tale, but because it also delves into the broader issues of juvenile justice in America.

it took an outside agency -- the Juvenile Law Center, which is based in Philadelphia -- to blow the whistle after looking into complaints about Ciaveralla passed on by desperate parents.

As the Law Center later put it: "Children in Luzerne County were being treated as commodities, with a for-profit provider as purchaser, and the juvenile court as supplier.... This was done publicly and without comment from the other professionals in the room. That is hard to believe."

Still the law center found it difficult to get the state to intervene, even after it found a pattern of abuse by Ciavarella. The judge, who presided in a county with less than three percent of the state's population, was responsible for 20 percent of juvenile placements in prison facilities.

It was the FBI that finally got the judges, though it had no clue of the bribes at the beginning. It started its investigation looking into Conahan's close ties to William (Big Billy) D'Elia, head of organizing crime in the area. The two men had breakfast two or three days a week.

Kids for Cash is worth a read not just as a crime story, but as an insight into the political, public and legal culture that tolerated these abuses and even intervened to prevent remedial action. Here is a link to the Amazon page for the book.

Postscript: Ciavarella and Conahan entered into a plea deal with the feds in 2010 that would have sent them to jail for seven years.  Still, Ciavarella publicly proclaimed his innocence, defending his style as a judge and the severity of his sentences. He said the bribes he got (and never reported on disclosure or tax forms) were truly a "finder's fee."

U.S. District Judge Edward Kosik, reading those comments, nixed the deal between the judges and the feds and ordered the two to stand trial. A jury found them guilty; Kosik sentenced Ciavarella to 28 years in jail and Conaham to 171/2.

After a review by a special master of the 4,000 cases Ciavarella handled as a juvenile judge, the state Supreme Court voided them and ordered them expunged from the record.

-- Tom Ferrick
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