Pennsylvania Railroad

In the Keystone State's juvenile justice scandal, money changed everything.


Mark Ciavarella, the Pennsylvania judge known as "Mr. Zero Tolerance," had a reputation for running his courtroom like an assembly line, spending just a minute or two on each of the juvenile offenders who appeared before him. If they were not represented by lawyers, which was usually the case, they would more often than not be shipped off in shackles to some form of detention, even for trivial crimes.

Aside from defendants and their parents, few people seemed concerned about Ciavarella's mindlessly tough attitude—until it turned out he was receiving kickbacks from the private detention centers where he sent juvenile offenders. But for those suspicious payments, Ciavarella, who was convicted last week of racketeering and related charges, might still be practicing his special brand of injustice, which he and his supporters said helped kids by hurting them.

Federal prosecutors say Ciavarella and Michael Conahan, at the time Luzerne County's president judge, conspired to replace the county's dilapidated juvenile detention center with new ones built and operated by their cronies. Conahan, who pleaded guilty to racketeering last year, arranged for the centers to get the county's business, while Ciavarella kept them full. In exchange, they received $2.9 million.

Years before this arrangement came to light in January 2009, it should have been clear something was amiss in Ciavarella's courtroom. In 2004 the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader reported that the share of juvenile offenders given out-of-home "placements"—21 percent under Ciavarella, up from 4.5 percent under his predecessor—was higher in Luzerne County than anywhere else in the state.

The article noted the "skyrocketing costs" associated with Ciavarella's harshness and suggested that local schools had become too dependent on his court to handle discipline problems. But it also cited a dramatic reduction in juvenile recidivism. "It looks like it works," a defense attorney told the paper, while Ciavarella insisted, "I'm in the business of trying to help these kids." He was elected to a second 10-year term the following year.  

Meanwhile, stories of juvenile offenders mistreated by Ciavarella were trickling out. A 10-year-old girl who accidentally set her bedroom on fire spent a month in a detention center. A 13-year-old boy got 48 days for throwing a steak at his mother's boyfriend during an argument. Ciavarella locked up another 13-year-old boy for failing to testify against a fellow student who brought a knife to a school dance. A 15-year-old was sentenced to a boot camp for "an indefinite period" after she wrote a prank note that was deemed a "terroristic threat." A 16-year-old spent a month in a boot camp for creating a MySpace page that made fun of her high school's assistant principal. A 17-year-old boy charged with possessing drug paraphernalia, his first offense, served a total of five months.

Despite such reports, the state Judicial Conduct Board declined to act on a 2006 complaint that outlined Conahan and Ciavarella's conflicts of interest. As late as January 2009, two weeks before the "cash for kids" story broke, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected a petition in which the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, joined by the state Department of Public Welfare, asked it to nullify hundreds of Ciavarella's decisions. The April 2008 petition noted that juvenile offenders in Ciavarella's courtroom were routinely pressured to waive their right to counsel and plead guilty without being informed of the consequences.

After the charges against Ciavarella and Conahan were announced, the state Supreme Court suddenly discovered a "travesty of juvenile justice." Saying it "cannot have any confidence that Ciavarella decided any Luzerne County juvenile case fairly and impartially," it overturned thousands of convictions.

Superior Court Judge John Cleland, who headed the state panel that investigated Luzerne County's juvenile justice scandal, was dismayed by the "inaction" of "those who knew but failed to speak." Judging from the pre-scandal praise for Ciavarella's effectiveness, part of the blame for this silence lies with a "scared straight" mentality that sacrifices law for the illusion of order.

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason and a nationally syndicated columnist.

© Copyright 2011 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

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    1. Luzerne County has partisan judicial elections. Both of these disgusting judges were Democrats. Obviously the zero-tolerance idiocy exists in both parties, as does the chance for corruption. Still, I strongly suspect that if the two judges were elected as Republicans, that fact would be in the lead paragraph of every news story, right beside their names, instead of their party affiliation not being mentioned at all in any of the linked stories.

      1. Let’s play Name That Party. If they had been Republicans, that fact would have been prominent in the story.

        1. Yeah! This story illustrates that corrupt judges operating with little oversight can wreck people’s lives the continued persecution of Republicans by the liberal media!

          *angrily shakes fist at the sky*

          1. No. It doesn’t illustrate anything other than reality. If they had been Republicans, that fact would have been mentioned more prominently, at least in places like the NYT. That is just the truth.

            1. You seem to have some sort of republican sense that tips you off to grave injustices being wrought upon your beloved party by media hipsters, so I won’t argue with your assertion.

              Really is that the first thing that you guys think about when reading any news article? “Wow, that’s fucked up what they did to those kids, but what’s worse is that if hypothetically those judges were Republicans the liberal hipsters in the New York City would mentioned their party in the story!”

              Do you guys really think that starting a vicitmization war with the left is the way to advance your policy goals?

              There is something to be said of quiet stoicism.

              1. Really is that the first thing that you guys think about when reading any news article? ”

                No. I would say I have about ten other posts on this thread that have nothing to do with this. I was just commenting on Thacker’s valid point.

                Stop projecting.

              2. It is a valid observation. So STFU.

                1. Yeah! You tell ’em Dave, OMG LOL!!ONE!

                  What was observed you mouth-breathing cunt?


                  Whether what you was valid is not really my point; it’s that this story really has nothing to do with the red/blue horse race, but you had to make it about Republican persecution.

                  These judges are fucking evil, and the media’s deference towards authority is well documented(red and blue authority)here everyday, but you can’t let that story be told without trying to get points in some non-existent game.

                  1. The story is about whatever I decide it is about and you do not have the mental authority to tell me or others what the story is about little “Alice In Wonderland”. Time to go visit Igor and see…..Chuckle.

              3. There is something to be said of quiet stoicism.

                Yeah. There is. There is also something to be said for crap like this to get the airing it deserves. If the story gets treated differently if the bastard is a Democrat than if the bastard is a Republican, then there’s ample reason to conclude media bias has a real cost.

          2. Seems to me that the story illustrates both:

            1) Corrupt judges operating with little oversight can wreck people’s lives, and

            2) The media is much less likely to engage in oversight of Democrats than Republicans, so

            the conclusion of your own syllogism is:

            3) Apparently it’s better for civil liberties to elect more Republicans, since at least there will be oversight.

            Elect a Democrat, and it’s “out of sight, out of mind” for civil liberties violations as far as most of the media (Glenn Greenwald excepted) is concerned.

            1. actually even that didn’t stop a sick doctor in west phila. from operating “house of horrors” women’s clinic…

              1. “…in west phila”

                Born and raised!

  1. But it also cited a dramatic reduction in juvenile recidivism.

    I’ve never really thought about this, but isn’t an easy way to reduce recidivism rates simply incarcerating people who aren’t dangerous? (This being dependent on which definition we’re using, but the most common one I’ve seen is synonymous with re-incarceration.)

    It’s like reducing a city’s poverty by forcibly evicting the poor.

    1. That is a great point. If they you only lock up innocent people, the people you lock up are, since they are not really criminals, much less likely to reoffend than real criminals.

      That is a concept a bureaucrat could love. I think you may have a future in government.

      1. I hope politicians don’t read these comments else some young “tough on crimer” just had his big idea to really make a name for himself. Thanks John

    2. It’s like reducing a city’s poverty by forcibly evicting the poor.

      Is that you, Rudy?

      1. Gimme some credit here. I also reduced crime! Technically I’m talking about reported crime, but hey, what’s the difference?

        America’s mayor out.

        1. Freakonomics gave credit where credit was due Rudy.

    3. Good call — juking the stats is always good business.

    4. A++++ for insight.

    1. He looks like Sugarfree-hell that explains a lot

  2. This woman’s son commited suicide after being sentenced in Ciavarella’s court.

    1. An “all-star” wrestler caught drinking underage at a party.

  3. I’ve seen the inside of a juvenile-detention center. My sociology class in high school was allowed to visit one. I can tell you, they’re run by the absolute worst in humanity. You’re treated like shit!

    1. Power attracts the corrupted and the corruptible.

    2. They actually perform rectal-cavity searches on new inmates. These are 9 year old kids we’re talking about!

      Of course, I’m from Alabama, which has one of the most evil criminal-justice systems in the world.

      1. What the fuck. They should be arrested and convicted of child molestation.

        1. Cases of “child protectionists” abusing children are too many to list. They routinely force children to submit to exams that are tantamount to rape, in order to discover whether the child was raped (and frequently finding that the child was NOT raped … until the exam).

          But they’re the “good guys”, so they have sovereign immunity.

      2. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out what types of people would actually want a job like that.

        1. To protect and shove fingers up child rectums

    3. Prison guard positions would attract people who like to be in absolute control over other human beings at a higher rate than the general population. I can only imagine that it would be even more pronounced in institutions with children rather than adults.

    4. If an inmate act up while in confinement, the administrator told us that he would remove all but a single piece of toilet-paper…kids, we’re talking about.

    5. Seriously, can we get some investigative journalism from the Reason staff about juvenile detention? They may not be all bad, but the one I went to was just nightmarish.

  4. Okay, so now it’s fixed and will never ever happen again, back to work people!

  5. He needs to pull a good long sentence for this outrage – long enough to wipe that “I’m still wiser than you maggots” smirk off his face.

    1. “Guard, guard, can I have some more TP? That last shit gave me the worst case of mud-butt!”

  6. I’m outraged, and I hope my comment will go far in putting an end to injustice.

    1. We have heard your complaint and filed with the Department. Thank you for your feedback, you are here to serve.

  7. Any parent who touches His Person in retaliation would get a harsher sentence than the judge. State gotta protect its own, you know.

    1. I suspect there will be more than a few people looking for the opportunity to “touch his person” once he goes to he federal can. With a 13+ year sentence, he will go to a medium security “big boy prison”. Can you imagine being a former judge in prison for harming kids? The child molesters will be above this guy. He is going to get all that he deserves.

      1. You’re in favor of prison rape, then?

        1. No. But even without rape, prison is a violent horrible place.

        2. Let’s just say the judge will probably be “scared straight”.

        3. Prison rape is theft. There are plenty of “prostitutes” in prison that will gladly blow you for a candy bar or an instant noodle soup.

          1. Speaking from personal experience?

          2. I’ve heard that since federal facilities banned smoking, the currency of choice is “macks” (mackerel or other fish in a foil pouch). And no I don’t speak from experience.

            1. Government’s always working to ruin the economy, even in prison. Geez all those guys who saved up their cigs only to no longer be able to use them as a commodity.

    2. “Any parent who touches His Person in retaliation would get a harsher sentence than the judge”

      Consistent with the fact that our public servants are, in reality, held to a lower standard than private citizens.

  8. “Ciavarella and Conahan initially agreed to plead guilty in 2009 to honest-services fraud and tax evasion in a deal that called for each to receive a sentence of seven years in prison.

    But their initial plea deals were rejected by U.S. District Judge Edwin Kosik, who grew disgusted that the two judges seemed to be minimizing their crimes. It will now be up to Kosik to sentence the two former judges”

    Stupid arrogant bastard could have gotten off with seven years, which with federal good time of 54 days a year would have really been around six, but he couldn’t come clean and admit what he did. Now he is looking at 13 or more, which is pretty much a life sentence for someone over 55.

    Sometimes justice is served. Oh and did you read the part about how he claimed that he didn’t reveal the payments because he felt it would “upset the public”?

  9. What is even slimier about this case (if that’s even possible) is the relationship between one of the owner/investors of the detention center and the Chief Justice of the PA Supreme Court. The guy was the Justice’s nephew, I belive. PA needs to just remove the entire Supreme Court and start over. Ron Castille, the present Chief Justice is a disgrace to humanity.

    1. I remember that fucker. He was DA in Philly. How do you go from Philly DA in 1991, to Chief Justice in 1993? Whose cock did he suck?

  10. He was known for having kids as young as ten handcuffed and shackled right in the courtroom and hauling them off before they could even say goodbye to their parents.

    Now of course he is out on bond awaiting sentencing so he can get his affairs in order and report to prison. Really, death is too good for these guys.

    1. The kids didn’t die in juvi. I imagine this judge will, and not naturally.

  11. In a sane and just world, Mark Ciavarella would be sentence to die by slow slicing.

    1. In a sane and just world, your access to wikipedia would be severely curtailed…

      1. For some odd reason, that comment makes me smile.

  12. For anyone interested, here is a one-hour program from WHYY’s public radio broadcast on May 28th, 2010

    Click “Listen to the mp3”…..s-scandal/

  13. I don’t see how anything less than life in prison (preferably in the company of those he has locked up) would be appropriate.

    Though I would definitely prefer death in this case. A judge who does this type of thing is one step away from a child rapist on my hate scale.

    1. I think finding a sentence would be easy. Just total up all of the time he sentenced for every offender that ever went through his courtroom, and give him that.

    2. Right, it would not be possible to quantify the damage that he did to these kids and their families. In such instances a death penalty may be appropriate.

    3. for every sentence he received a payoff on, he should receive that amount of time. Add them all up, and that would probably give him a substantial sentence. sounds just to me

    4. I would say this judge is several steps WORSE than a child rapist: he was in a position of authority, his crimes were premeditated, his victims were victimized over the long term, and he had a multitude of victims. If you could find someone who had kidnapped, held, and REPEATEDLY raped a thousand children, THEN you would have someone on this judge’s level of criminality.

  14. Federal prosecutors say Ciavarella and Michael Conahan, at the time Luzerne County’s president judge, conspired to replace the county’s dilapidated juvenile detention center with new ones built and operated by their cronies. Conahan, who pleaded guilty to racketeering last year, arranged for the centers to get the county’s business, while Ciavarella kept them full. In exchange, they received $2.9 million.

    Now repeat the holy statist mantra: Public servants are good. Public servants are noble. Public servants deserve generous pay.

    1. No one looks like a rose here — the prisons that did the bribing were “private”, AFAIK.

      Unless you contract private prisons for the space alone, without regard for the number of prisoners, they’re always going to have a financial incentive to see people locked up. In and of itself, that’s not too dangerous, but all it takes one judge and a prosecutor with a fondness for pleas and a weakness for kickbacks.

      1. I know this isn’t libertarianism by the book, but personally I think private prisons should be outlawed. Incarceration shouldn’t come with a profit motive, for anybody. It should be a function carried out reluctantly by the state, at significant cost.

        1. Unless you prevent prison guards from unionizing, they’ll still have a profit incentive — not the individual guards (who face more danger with more prisoners), but the union as an organization, since it gets more members if the number of prisoners spurs hiring in the prison sector.

          Not saying that anything has to be done about it — if we’re worried about perverse incentives, prosecutors and judges elected on a short-term basis would be the place to start. Even without bribes, they benefit from railroading people by getting to appear Tough On Crime (TM).

          1. Yeah, I’d certainly support something like that. Shorter terms, limits on the number of terms, etc.

            Regarding unionization — if all prison guards were public employees, the case for eliminating prison guard’s unions would be very strong. Not that it would happen, but still.

          2. that’s not the only incentive. it grossly simplifies. in many locations, including where i work, prosecutors are incentivized for churning cases (since the case load is so much larger than they can handle). in that respect, they are incentivized to nolle pros cases (the exact opposite of the example you give), since it helps clear their caseload.

            perverse incentives for prosecutors don’t always work towards being tough, sometimes exactly the opposite.

            our standard, prior to some policy changes in our juvenile justice system, was 6 (yes 6) auto theft convictions before a juvenile could get sentenced to any time in juvie beyond a month.

        2. Rhayader, that’s a bit of a problem. You can either have a profit motive for a rent-seeking private prison owner (lock up more kids so I can increase my bill to the state), or a budget motive for a career BOP bureaucrat (give us more budget money or we’ll turn murderers, thieves and rapists loose in your nice suburbs).

          1. It wouldn’t remove every incentive for corruption, you’re right. But the private prison industry gives rise to all sorts of lobbying and other politically enabled entrenchment, which can easily skew public priorities.

            Plus, I just think there is something morally repugnant with the idea of farming out misery, without even looking at corruption. It’s like Blackwater, only this time the mercenaries are brutalizing American citizens instead of stateless terrorists.

        3. I agree. Prisons are an exception to the rule. While historically there have been some well-run private prisons, there are simply too many perverse incentives.

      2. just curious:
        what happened to the original detention centers that caused them to become dilapidated that started this?

      3. No one looks like a rose here — the prisons that did the bribing were “private”, AFAIK.


        all it takes one judge and a prosecutor with a fondness for pleas and a weakness for kickbacks.

        The point at which the holy statist mantra must be repeated lest the people lose faith in their all-too-corruptible public servants and think “maybe we should pay closer attention to what these people are up to.”

  15. Sadly this kind of crap happens in courts all over the country, and not just to kids (though that is even more shameful because kids are so vulnerable and less able to stick up for themselves than adults). There are lots of courts, esp. in small towns/rural areas, where indigent defendants (90% or more of all defendants) are tricked or coerced into giving up all their rights, including rights to an attorney, and plead guilty, all without knowing what they have done.

    1. It’s not just the courtrooms either. On every step of the criminal justice path, from initial interaction with police to incarceration to release, suspects are pressured to waive or ignore their own rights. The slimy defense lawyer getting his guy off “on a technicality” is a myth. Defendants face an uphill battle every step of the way, whether guilty or innocent.

      1. +++++

        It’s too bad so many people learn this thru bitter experience. Flex Your Rights and other such organizations are doing a tremendous service–should be required curriculum for all school children (isn’t that sad?)

      2. do you REALLY believe this? really? i’ve seen metric assloads of evidence to the contrary. i’ve seen judges practically BEG defendants to consider NOT waiving their rights when they claim they want to. i’ve seen prosecutors go out of their way to ensure defendants knowingly waived them when they do. etc. these generalities are SOMETIMES true, and in many locales very rarely true. and of course dog bites man doesn’t get reported here, or in many other cases. you will hear about the courtrooms where the bad shit happens, but you will not hear about the ones that follow the law, because that’s not news.

    2. And most people don’t give a shit. They believe what they see on the cop shows.

      Just last night a character on NCIS tells two “special” agents, “I don’t have to talk to you”. and the hard-ass woman replies, “actually, you do”. And I’m yelling at the TV, NO YOU DON’T ! That’s bullshit, tell’em you won’t talk, STFU and get a lawyer.

      But hey, it was all so the good guys could triumph, and isn’t that Mark Harmon dreamy ?

      1. Yes, sometimes watching shows like NCIS or Law and Order become difficult because I know that the abuses, the dealmaking the willingness of the cops to assume guilt is not fictional.

        1. some cops. but don’t let broad brush bigotry get in the way…

  16. Saw the clip of the dead kid’s mother on the news this morning. How she restrained herself to just yelling at him rather than blowing his brains out, I don’t know.

    I told my wife if some crooked judge had her locked up and she killed herself, he would be a dead man.

  17. I favor a suspended sentence for the judge. Sentence him to being suspended by the neck.

  18. According to Michael Moore’s “Capitalism A Love Story”, this story is the essence of capitalism. No kidding. He did a whole segment on this story and interviewed all these kids who were wrongly incarcerated there and wrapped it up by claiming that “this is Capitalism”. That’s about as far as I could watch without throwing my T.V. out the window.

    1. Hah, somehow my girlfriend’s mom decided I’d like to get that DVD for x-mas. Haven’t had the stomach to actually watch it yet. Sounds like I’m not missing much.

      1. I’ve heard that his treatment of the financial crisis isn’t that bad because he blames politicians as much as anybody else. Though I’m sure he just bundles it all up and calls it capitalism.

        The one part I really enjoyed was when he was looking at the constitution wondering where it says we *have* to be capitalists. He says, as if making fun of himself, something like “I *only see things like* ‘we the people’ and ‘general welfare’ but I don’t see anything about free markets or capitalism, in fact it sounds like that other ‘ism'”. He’s right that the constitution doesn’t prescribe any economic system, he just doesn’t seem to understand that capitalism is just how free people live and trade when nothing is imposed on them by force. I got a good chuckle off that.

        1. Not to mention that the hypocrite is worth 50 mil or so in this horrible system.

    2. That’s about as far as I could watch without throwing my T.V. out the window.

      What, it’s not an example of the free market for justice? Of course it is. A service was sought, bought, paid for and delivered. It’s a transaction between two adults that doesn’t affect you – why do you or any free-marketer really care?

      Ha ha.

      It’s no different than the free market for political results – another area where civics are distorted for personal profit (and where libertarians never seem to admit exists a free market).

      Scumbags will always exist, inside and outside of public service. But the unelected scumbags who dish out piles of cash to buy laws, resources and contracts are by nature beyond reach of anything but law and regulation – of which more is needed, not less.

      The judge should rot in jail – no shit. But I think I’m the only one in this thread to call for the private prison board who paid the bribes to rot in the came cell block.

      To watch you guys miss the payer in the story is exactly like watching opponents to illegal immigration shy away from calling for jail time for the business owners who make their profits on the backs of their illegal labor.

      Because really, the liberty of business owners is the only liberty you people give a shit about.

      1. Is this a goof? Capitalism is an economic system that cannot exist without individual rights. Paying someone to violate someone else’s individual rights is necessarily anti-capitalistic.

        Anyone involved with bribing the judge should rot indeed, so there are at least two of us here.

        Neither the migrant worker nor the businessman have done anything wrong. Nobody should be able to punish either.

        Groups don’t have rights, only the individuals within the groups do.

        Michael Moore is hilariously stupid.

        Anything else?

  19. As for the debate concerning private vs government prisons….on basic principal I agree that if the State is going to deprive you of your liberty, the State should be responsible for you. But remember, the biggest proponent of California’s 3 strike law was the prison guards union. I can think of few things lower than lobbying to lock up more of your fellow citizens just so you can have a job. Also, didn’t Kurt Vonnegut have a book about all Americans eventually either working in or being sent to prison?

  20. Hocus Pocus was the book, but I have not read it in over a decade, so perhaps I remember it wrong.

  21. OMG, sent this guy to jail and strip him of his legal license and judgeship. What a douchebag. This country has enough problems with it legal industry without this Ciavarella guy mucking everything up:…..tsourcing/

  22. This is a perfect example of how the “Land of the Free” became the planet’s #1 incarcerator. This is THE paradigm of the Drug War. We are living out the plot of “Soylent Green”.

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