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Sending Children to the Slammer for Profit

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On February 12, 2009, two judges appeared in federal court to plead guilty to $2.6 million in income tax and wire fraud. The crimes they were charged with resulted from locking up teenagers for profit in Scranton, PA.

Judge Michael T. Conahan and Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. were the two barristers, who received kickbacks to send teens to privately run detention centers. Apparently, Conahan secured the contracts and Civarella kept them filled with fresh prisoners (victims?) from his docket (court calendar). The privately run centers in questions were PA Childcare and its sister organization, Western PA Childcare.

A press release on January 28th from the Administrative Office of the Pennsylvania Courts announced the two judges' removal from the bench. The release goes into detail about the charges that were brought against them.

In one example cited by the NY Times, a teenager was given three months for setting up a MySpace page mocking her assistant principal at a Wilkes Barre, PA high school. The student in question, Hillary Transue, was a stellar student and had never been in trouble before. At the end of the hearing, with her parents watching, she was handcuffed and taken away. In another case, a teenager got three months for giving another teenager a black eye.

This is scary in a society where Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan get a few days for doing a lot more than putting up a MySpace page or giving someone a black eye!

Senior Judge Arthur Grim has been appointed by the State Supreme Court to figure out what to do with the estimated 5,000 juveniles who have been sentenced by Judge Ciavarelli since the scheme started in 2003. A lot of these children were first time offenders and some of them are still locked up.

The case has shocked local residents, already strained by recent losses of a lot of industrial jobs and the shutting down of coal mines. It has also brought up a debate about how children are represented in the legal system when they face charges.

Just last year, a motion was filed by the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center in behalf of 500 juveniles who had appeared in front of Ciavarelli without representation. The motion was originally denied, but it has now been reopened. Statistics show that about 50 percent of the children who waived their right to counsel in front of Ciavarelli went to the slammer. The Supreme Court ruled in 1967 that juveniles have a right to counsel, but in some states, including Pennsylvania, they are allowed to waive it.

Given the reduced tax base in the area, the money stolen in this instance could certainly have been put to better use, too.

Even worse, although Judge Ciavarella admitted to the kickbacks, he is contending that the juveniles in question deserved what they got. This is pretty arrogant, especially considering that the facts show that he sentenced a lot more of his cases (25%) to these privately run detention facilities than the state average of of 1 in 10.

I'm frequently amazed how people who have obviously done something terribly wrong rationalize their behavior.

If Ciavarella and Conahan (Judge titles intentionally removed) accept the plea bargain being offered by the government, they will get 87 months in the slammer, lose their pensions, and be disbarred. The executives running the privately run detention centers haven't been charged yet, but are expected to be.

I first saw a mention of this story on Alex Eckelberry's Sunbelt blog. His comment was "how sick." In closing, "I second that motion."

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