PA Supreme Court Voids Convictions of Railroaded Juvenile Defendants


The Pennsylvania Supreme Court will overturn the convictions of up to 1,200 defendants sentenced by Luzerne County Juvenile Court Judge Mark Ciavarella to a local detention center from which he was receiving kickbacks. An investigation commissioned by the court found "routine deprivation of children's constitutional rights to appear before an impartial tribunal and have an opportunity to be heard." The investigation concluded that "a very substantial number of juveniles who appeared without counsel before Judge Ciavarella for delinquency related proceedings did not knowingly and intelligently waive their right to counsel."

The Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, citing Ciavarella's disregard for defendants' rights, asked the Supreme Court to intervene nearly a year ago, but the court said no. It did not act until after federal prosecutors charged Ciavarella and Michael Conahan, Luzerne County's former chief judge, with taking $2.6 million from PA Child Care, the company that ran the detention center. Conahan arranged the county's contract with PA Child Care, while Ciavarella kept the juvenile jail full. Under a plea agreement, each will serve about seven years in federal prison. The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that the former co-owner of PA Child Care, Robert Powell, claims Ciavarella "shook him down for payments." So far Powell has not been charged.

I noted Ciavarella and Conahan's guilty pleas last month. Here are a few excerpts from my brief article about the scandal in the May issue of Reason (which is not online yet):

In 2004, responding to concerns about the unusually high rate and cost of juvenile incarceration in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. told the Wilkes-Barre Time Leader, "I'm not in the business to determine whether placement rates are up or down. I'm in the business of trying to help these kids."…

Ciavarella routinely prevented defendants from being represented by counsel and locked up minor offenders even when the juvenile probation officer recommended otherwise. The judge jailed a 16-year-old girl for a week and then sent her to a boot camp for "an indefinite period" because of a prank note in school that gave rise to a charge of making "terroristic threats." A 17-year-old boy charged with possessing drug paraphernalia served a total of five months in PA Child Care's Pittston Township detention facility, plus another four months in boot camp…

Last summer Powell, amid rumors of a federal investigation, announced that he was selling his interest in the detention facilities to Zappala [his partner]. "I am very proud," he said, "of the company and the hundreds of kids' lives I have helped change for the positive."

The Juvenile Law Center has the latest on the case, including a copy of the Supreme Court's order, here.