When news broke in 2008 that judges in Luzerne County were sending thousands of kids to detention facilities for minor incidents (the kind they would typically get a warning or community service for) and receiving kickbacks from the facilities, the world paused in shock.
This wasn’t your typical state political scandal. This involved ruining the lives of children. Dubbed the “kids for cash” scandal, the news quickly gained national and international attention.
It sounded like something out of a Charles Dickens novel with young kids being sent away unjustly, except Luzerne judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan, who pocketed $2.8 million from the scheme, made Ebenezer Scrooge look charitable.
Two years later, the story isn’t over. It’s just stalled in the state Legislature.
While there have been many vows this will never happen again in our state, lawmakers have yet to act to change any laws to ensure it doesn’t.
As a refresher, judges Ciavarella and Conahan were sending just about every young person they saw to detention facilities, not just true rebel rousers. A young woman who posted a negative comment about a principal on a MySpace page spent several months behind bars. It might have been a foolish move, but months in a detention facility was a punishment that didn’t fit the “crime.”
This didn’t happen a few times. There were 5,000 such cases. Worse, parents tried to raise the red flag about faulty practices in the courtroom, but their complaints were ignored in the bureaucratic judicial oversight chain.
After five years, the smoking gun came when several particularly egregious cases came to the attention of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia. The group dug deeper and discovered from public data that more than half of these young people being sent away didn’t even have legal representation in the courtroom.
It is alleged that Judge Ciavarella was often advising young people and their parents not to bother with legal counsel for such “minor incidents” even though it was their right to have someone there. The system designed to ensure fair treatment was entirely skewed toward the pockets of the judges.
Two years after this story broke, where are we really in ensuring this never happens again?
--Thankfully, the rulings were overturned so the young people don’t have a permanent record anymore. It’s some justice, albeit slow and hard fought and coming years after the kids spent time locked up.
--The judges were removed from the bench. Conahan plead guilty. Ciavarella maintains his innocence and is awaiting trial.
--The Pa. Juvenile Court Judges’ Commission is closely monitoring statistics on how many youths “waive legal representation.” These figures now appear in the commission’s annual reports.
--Finally, a yearlong investigation into the failures of the system concluded in May with the publication of a frank report that made numerous recommendations for change.
What we really need now is for state lawmakers to enact those recommendations. Priority one is to make it mandatory for juveniles to have counsel in the courtroom.
Rep. Todd Eachus (D-Luzerne) and Sen. Lisa Baker (R-Luzerne) have introduced bills to this effect. Similarly, Rep. Phyllis Mundy (D-Luzerne) has introduced a bill to give the Juvenile Court Judges’ Commission more power to monitor and intervene when juvenile proceedings go awry.
Changing these laws is the final step in restoring confidence in Pennsylvania’s juvenile justice system and righting the wrongs of the past. Most of these bills have bi-partisan support and rightfully so. The problem is lawmakers are so swept up in Marcellus Shale at the moment that issues such as juvenile justice reform are falling by the wayside.
For example, Mundy’s bill passed the House unopposed last week, but it hasn’t even been referred to a Senate committee. As for Eachus’ bill and Bakers', neither one has even made it to the floor, not a good sign with only three weeks left before recess.
For state lawmakers to drop the ball now would be another injustice in this tragedy.
Heather Long is deputy editorial page editor. 255-8104 or firstname.lastname@example.org.