Pennsylvania Railroad

Juvenile court corruption


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 Times 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."

For a tidy profit, that is. In January, Ciavarella and Michael T. Conahan, president judge of the Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas between 2002 and 2007, admitted receiving $2.6 million from the operators of two juvenile detention facilities and conspiring to hide the money from the Internal Revenue Service. Under their plea agreement, each will serve seven years in federal prison.

In 2000, federal prosecutors say, Ciavarella helped a local lawyer, identified by The Times Leader as Robert Powell, build a juvenile detention facility. Two years later, Conahan signed an agreement with Powell's company, PA Child Care, to house juvenile offenders; later that year, he shut down the county-operated juvenile detention facility. The two judges received nearly $1 million for their efforts, and the arrangement worked out so well that in 2005 Powell and his partner, Greg Zappala, opened a second detention center in western Pennsylvania. Prosecutors say Ciavarella and Conahan collected another $1.6 million from the jailers during the next few years.

Meanwhile, Ciavarella, the judge in charge of the Luzerne County Juvenile Court, was keeping the detention centers full. According to the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, 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 was interpreted as "terroristic threats." A 17-yearold boy charged with possessing drug paraphernalia served a total of five months in a PA Child Care facility.

After Ciavarella and Conahan were arrested and pleaded guilty, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed to consider whether hundreds of juvenile defendants had been improperly sentenced to detention. Last summer Powell, amid rumors of a federal investigation, announced that he was selling his interest in the detention facilities to his partner. "I am very proud," he said, "of the company and the hundreds of kids' lives I have helped change for the positive."