For almost seven years, two Pennsylvania judges sent hundreds of children—some of them as young as 8 years old—to privately run juvenile detention centers in exchange for financial kickbacks. On Tuesday, Judge Christopher Conner ordered former Judges Mark A. Ciavarella and Michael T. Conahan to pay over $200 million in compensatory and punitive damages to their victims.
Starting in 2000, the pair sent children into juvenile detention for offenses as innocuous as jaywalking, petty theft, or truancy. In what became known as the "kids for cash" scandal, the children were sent to two privately run detention centers whose builder and co-owner paid the men $2.8 million, according to the Associated Press, over the course of the scheme.
According to testimony from plaintiffs during the class-action suit, many of the sentences the children received were staggering. One plaintiff, who was 16 at the time, was sentenced to 11 months for driving the wrong way down a one-way street without a license. Another girl, then only 10, was sent to detention for a schoolyard fight with no serious injuries. One child was sent to detention for stealing a Hershey bar, another for writing on a school window with a marker. Several plaintiffs testified that their sentences were based on entirely arbitrary means, such as the number of birds in a tree outside the courtroom or the number of buttons on a girl's blouse. One plaintiff was sentenced to an additional eight months in detention after Ciavarella instructed him to pick a sports team, and he picked the wrong one.
"The Luzerne County Court System failed us," said one unnamed plaintiff. "They [Ciavarella and Conahan] had abused their power and, in my opinion, should never see the daylight again. The scars of this scandal will continue to live with all of us. As a survivor, I can assure you the impact of this man's greed [will never] be over or forgotten."
According to CBS news, following the plot's discovery, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has thrown out 4,000 juvenile convictions between 2003 and 2008. However, many of the plaintiffs still suffer from mental health problems. Several children sent to detention by Ciavarella and Conahan have died by suicide or drug overdose in the years after their detention.
"Children and adolescents suffered unspeakable physical and emotional trauma at the hands of two judicial officers who swore by solemn oath to uphold the law," Judge Conner wrote in a memorandum on the ruling. "Ciavarella and Conahan abandoned their oath and breached the public trust. Their cruel and despicable actions victimized a vulnerable population of young people, many of whom were suffering from emotional issues and mental health concerns."
Unfortunately, it is unlikely that any of the plaintiffs will receive financial compensation for their unjust detentions as, according to the A.P., Ciavarella and Conahan are now serving lengthy prison sentences. Ciavarella was sentenced to 28 years in prison, and Conahan was sentenced to 17 years, though he was released to home confinement in 2020, citing COVID-19-related concerns.
Regardless, the ruling is considered "a huge victory" for the victims. Marsha Levick, a lawyer for the victims, told the A.P. that the ruling "recognizes the gravity of what the judges did to these children in the midst of some of the most critical years of their childhood and development."
The plaintiffs in this case "are the tragic human casualties of a scandal of epic proportions. The law is powerless to restore to plaintiffs the weeks, months, and years lost because of the actions of the defendants," wrote Conner. "But we hope that by listening to their experiences and acknowledging the depth of the damage done to their lives, we can provide them with a measure of closure and…ensure that their stories are never forgotten."