The Pennsylvania Railroad

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


Mark Ciavarella, the Pennsylvania judge known as "Mr. Zero Tolerance," ran his courtroom like an assembly line, spending a minute or two on each of the juvenile offenders who appeared before him. If they were not represented by lawyers (and most were not), they usually would be shipped off in shackles to some form of detention, even for trivial crimes such as possessing a pot pipe or making fun of a school administrator.

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 in February 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, then Luzerne County's president judge, conspired to replace the county's dilapidated juvenile detention center with new ones built and run by their cronies. Conahan, who pleaded guilty to racketeering last year, arranged a county contract for the centers, while Ciavarella kept them full. In exchange, the judges got $2.9 million.

Years before this arrangement came to light in 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" of Ciavarella's harshness and suggested that local schools depended on him 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 he was "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. 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 deemed to be a "terroristic threat." A 16-year-old spent a month in a boot camp for creating a MySpace page that mocked her high school's assistant principal. A 17-year-old charged with possessing drug paraphernalia, his first offense, served 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. In 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 his 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.

The head of the state panel charged with determining how all this happened 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.