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.