The "Kids For Cash" Scandal: The Decisions of Former Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella in Hundreds of Juvenile Convictions are Overturned.
Pennsylvania's highest court overturned hundreds of juvenile convictions issued by a corrupt judge who took millions of dollars in kickbacks from youth detention centers. Judge Ciavarella and another former Judge Michael Conahan allegedly took money to send kids to a detention center in Pennsylvania.
Court reverses hundreds of Pa. juvenile convictions
Judge pleaded guilty to taking $2.6 million for putting youths in private lockup facilities
March 27, 2009 Author: THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
ALLENTOWN, Pa. - Pennsylvania's highest court overturned hundreds of juvenile convictions issued by a corrupt judge who took millions of dollars in kickbacks from youth detention centers.
The state Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that former Luzerne County President Judge Mark Ciavarella violated the constitutional rights of youth offenders who appeared in his courtroom without lawyers between 2003 and 2008.
"Today's order is not intended to be a quick fix," Chief Justice Ronald Castille said in a statement. "It's going to take some time, but the Supreme Court is committed to righting whatever wrong was perpetrated on Luzerne's juveniles and their families."
In one of the most egregious cases of judicial corruption ever seen, federal prosecutors charged Ciavarella and another Luzerne County judge, Michael Conahan, with taking $2.6 million in payoffs to put juvenile offenders in privately owned lockups.
The judges pleaded guilty to fraud last month and face sentences of more than seven years in prison.
Hillary Transue, 17, who appeared in Ciavarella's courtroom in 2007 and spent a month in a wilderness camp for building a MySpace page that lampooned her assistant principal, was elated that her record would be expunged.
She did not have an attorney when she went before Ciavarella, nor was she told of her right to one.
"I feel incredible, not even just for myself, but for everyone who is involved in this whole thing, all of the kids who are going to have clean records now," Transue said.
The Supreme Court approved the recommendations of Berks County Senior Judge Arthur Grim, whom the justices appointed in February to review cases handled by Ciavarella.
He decided that expungement was the most appropriate remedy for low-level offenders who appeared in Ciavarella's courtroom without lawyers - a group he has said numbered "easily into the hundreds."
Under Pennsylvania law, a juvenile may not waive his right to an attorney unless the decision is made "knowingly, intelligently and voluntarily." The judge must also formally question defendants to make sure they understand their rights, something Ciavarella routinely did not do.
In a report to the Supreme Court released Thursday, Grim said he has determined that "a very substantial number of juveniles who appeared without counsel before Judge Ciavarella ... did not knowingly and intelligently waive their right to counsel."
Grim next will review cases involving more serious juvenile offenses.
Prosecutors have described a scheme in which Conahan, the former president judge of Luzerne County, shut down the county-owned juvenile detention center in 2002 and signed an agreement with PA Child Care LLC to send youth offenders to its new facility outside Wilkes-Barre.
Ciavarella, who presided over juvenile court, sent youths to the detention center and to a sister facility in western Pennsylvania while he was taking payments, prosecutors said.
PA Child Care LLC has not been charged. Former co-owner Robert Powell, who made the payments, has said he was the victim of extortion.
Even before the scandal became public in late January, youth advocates had complained for years that Ciavarella was a harsh jurist who deprived youths of their constitutional rights.
Youths were routinely brought before Ciavarella without a lawyer, given hearings that lasted only a minute or two, and then sent to detention for offenses as minor as stealing change from cars and writing prank notes.
In his report, Grim said "there was routine deprivation of children's constititional rights to appear before an impartial tribunal and to have an opportunity to be heard."
The Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center asked the Supreme Court to intervene in Luzerne County last year, citing statistics that Ciavarella was opting for detention in far high numbers than would be expected. The justices rejected the request without comment in early January, then changed their mind after Conahan and Ciavarella were charged.
Marsha Levick, chief counsel of the law center, said that the unprecedented scope of the scandal will take time to fully address, but that Thursday's order was a start.
"In a way it's low-hanging fruit, but certainly the Juvenile Law Center's position remains consistent - that all of these kids' records should be expunged," she said.
Levick said there are many inside the Luzerne County court system, including attorneys and probation officials, who had to know the rights of juvenile defendants were being routinely violated.
"Their failure to either individually or collectively speak out against what was going on in Judge Ciavarella's courtroom, I think, let all of these kids down," Levick said.
The judges and others tied to the scandal face at least three lawsuits, including one filed by the Law Center.
A defendant in two of the lawsuits, former Chief Juvenile Probation Officer Sandra Brulo, illegally tampered with juvenile court records last month in an attempt to evade liability. She pleaded guilty Thursday to a federal charge of obstruction of justice.
Pa. Youth Court Corruption Creates Legal Headache
By MICHAEL RUBINKAM and MARK SCOLFORO, Associated Press
WILKES-BARRE, Pa. (AP) — The decision this week to overturn hundreds of juvenile convictions was a significant and dramatic first step toward untangling the legal mess left behind by a judicial corruption case in northeastern Pennsylvania.
It may also have been the easy part.
The judge handling the matter for the state Supreme Court now faces the more daunting task of figuring out how to restore the legal rights of children convicted of serious offenses without endangering the public's safety or creating new problems of restitution or sentencing.
"It's going to be an extraordinarily difficult matter to conclude," Berks County Senior Judge Arthur E. Grim, appointed to review thousands of cases handled by a disgraced Luzerne County judge dating to 2003, said Friday. "At this point, I'm not prepared to tell you what the answer will be, because I don't know."
The former judge, Mark A. Ciavarella Jr., could get more than seven years in federal prison after pleading guilty to fraud and tax charges last month in a scheme with another judge to pocket $2.6 million by stocking private detention centers with young offenders.
Many of the offenders were given very brief hearings without lawyers, then shipped off to camps or detention centers for minor offenses, such as lampooning a teacher or simple assault.
Other youngsters, though, were convicted of more serious offenses, such as car theft, drug dealing and assault — but still may not have been given the benefit of due process and must be addressed. Some victims are wary of how those cases will be handled.
After Mike Gunshannon caught a youth trying to break into his car in 2003, police discovered the young burglar in possession of a thick stack of stolen credit cards. The offender went before Ciavarella.
Gunshannon, 53, of Kingston, said many of the kids who landed in the judge's courtroom ultimately deserved what they got — and he fears the victims are being forgotten in the furor over the misconduct.
"If the judge was making his decisions based on personal gain, then he should be locked up for longer than they're giving him. But I don't see these kids necessarily as innocent victims," Gunshannon said. "We've taught children you can violate the rules, and if you (complain) long enough, you can get away with it."
Still, countless questions remain.
Will defendants with voided convictions be allowed to recoup fines, restitution or other payments they have already made? What will happen to adults whose juvenile convictions have affected their subsequent sentencing in adult court?
Should the state simply release seriously troubled children who need substance abuse services or other counseling? How should the rights of crime victims like Gunshannon fit into the picture? Should some defendants get a new trial?
"It's pretty clear that every one of these kids has a right to a retrial," said Robert Schwartz, executive director of the nonprofit Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia. "But it's also fairly obvious that it's not in the public interest to retry thousands of cases."
The Juvenile Law Center's complaints about injustice in Luzerne County's juvenile court system helped bring the scandal to light. The center has also filed one of the three lawsuits against Ciavarella, retired Luzerne County Judge Michael T. Conahan and others tied to the scandal. Conahan, Ciavarella's co-defendant, also pleaded guilty and awaits federal sentencing.
Grim first must determine which defendants are covered by the state Supreme Court's expungement order, issued Thursday. In the next phase, he will consider cases that involve more serious offenses.
"We think the bulk of the kids up there are entitled to have the records erased and get a fresh start in life," Schwartz said. "But there are going to be some — we don't know how many — where the public safety issues will emerge in a different way and the victim issues will emerge in a different way."
"There are kids who, even though the process may have been tainted, may ultimately have needed the kind of treatment that comes with the juvenile justice system," he said. "It may be they had serious drug and alcohol problems and they're getting treatment for the first time in their lives because they were adjudicated and placed."
Restitution plays an important role in Pennsylvania's juvenile courts and will factor into how the court disposes of the Ciavarella cases, said Jim Anderson, executive director of the state Juvenile Court Judges' Commission.
Also, a juvenile offense can raise the minimum sentence that an adult defendant gets in Pennsylvania, so any conclusions about expungement could, in some cases, result in early release of state prison inmates.
"Juvenile adjudication may prevent someone from being hired for certain kinds of jobs, may prevent someone from owning a firearm, all kinds of things," Anderson said.
Grim, who is chairman of the Juvenile Court Judges' Commission, said Friday that in some cases, a new trial might be the best solution. But that raises another problem — Pennsylvania law prevents retrial of anyone who is at least 22 years old as a juvenile.
"That certainly has implications for what will happen," Anderson said. "Does that mean in a very serious case the individual now would be subject to (an adult) criminal proceeding? I think that would be unlikely."
Mark Scolforo reported from Harrisburg, Pa.
Clean slate for corrupt judge's young victims in Pennsylvania
Ed Pilkington in New York, The Guardian, Friday 27 March 2009
Hundreds of teenagers who were subjected to months in custody by a corrupt judge have had their convictions quashed by Pennsylvania's highest court in a judicial scandal dubbed "kids for cash".
The state's supreme court ruled that the judge, Mark Ciavarella, had violated the constitutional rights of the teenagers who came before his court, by failing to ensure they were properly legally represented.
Last month Ciavarella and another senior juvenile judge, Michael Conahan, pleaded guilty to having taken $2.6m (£1.78m) from the co-owner and builder of a private detention centre. The judges were accused of setting up a system to ensure a steady flow of children committed to custody in the care of the private firm in return for kickbacks.
Ciavarella handed down custodial sentences for children as young as 14 for offences such as as stealing a $4 jar of nutmeg or creating a satirical MySpace page of their headteacher.
The supreme court was acting on the strength of an official report by an independent judge, Arthur Grim, who found hundreds of children had been sentenced without the benefit of any legal advice. Under Pennsylvania law, a young person under 17 may not waive his or her right to a lawyer unless the decision is made "knowingly, intelligently and voluntarily".
In an interview with the Guardian last month Ciavarella insisted that his only concern had been to try "to help these kids straighten out their lives".
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2009
Juvenile Records to Be Expunged in Response to Judicial Kickback Case
Leo Strupczewski, 03-30-2009
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has granted a senior judge from Berks County the authority to expunge the records of a "substantial number" of juveniles who appeared before former Luzerne County President Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. between 2003 and 2008.
The decision comes two weeks after Senior Judge Arthur E. Grim recommended that the justices allow him to expunge the records of juveniles who had been charged with summary offenses and certain low-level misdemeanors and who were not represented by an attorney when they appeared before Ciavarella.
"The basis for my recommendation below that certain categories of cases should have the consent decrees and/or adjudications therein vacated and the records expunged, rather than having new proceedings is this," Grim wrote. "Had the juveniles in these cases been represented by competent counsel, had they appeared before an impartial tribunal, and had their other constitutional rights been protected, the vast majority of cases would have resulted in consent decrees, or some lesser sanction. Had these cases resulted in consent decrees or lesser sanctions, all the juveniles would be entitled to have their juvenile delinquency case records expunged by now pursuant to 18 Pa.C.S. § 9123."
Ciavarella and fellow former Luzerne County President Judge Michael T. Conahan took more than $2.6 million in kickbacks from one of the owners and the builder of PA Child Care, the government alleges. Both have admitted to taking the money and have agreed to serve 87 months in federal prison. The government, though, alleges that the payments amounted to a quid pro quo. Ciavarella and Conahan deny that allegation.
"This order represents another positive step in the Court's resolve to restore public trust and confidence in the juvenile justice system of Luzerne County," Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille said in a statement. "Citizens of the county -- and the Commonwealth -- have a right to expect a full accounting of what happened and the correction of any abuse of judicial authority."
In February, the justices appointed Grim, the chairman of the Pennsylvania Juvenile Court Judges' Commission, to review juvenile court cases handled by Ciavarella after Ciavarella and Conahan entered into conditional plea agreements with federal prosecutors.
This initial review only included cases involving low-level offenders who did not have attorney representation. Before an exact number of expungements is known, Grim must "conduct a further analysis to identify all cases covered by today's Supreme Court order."
Grim has told The Associated Press that his initial review involved hundreds of cases.
In his recommendation to the justices, Grim outlined seven criteria to be met before a juvenile's criminal record should be expunged. He wrote that the case must have taken place between 2003 and 2008; that the juvenile must not have had an attorney at his or her hearing before Ciavarella; and that the juvenile did not waive a right to counsel.
Grim also wrote that the offenses at issue had to have stemmed "from a single course of conduct or related incidents; or (b) were handled as part of a single proceeding or hearing."
The offenses had to be misdemeanors of the third degree or summary offenses.
Grim also wrote that the expungement would only apply if "the juvenile was not the subject of any prior or subsequent Petitions which resulted in adjudications of delinquency or consent decrees; and (vii) no proceeding seeking adjudication or conviction is pending."
"An additional factor weighing in favor of vacating the adjudications and consent decrees and expunging the records in the categories specified ... is that this prompt action in these non-serious cases will be at least one step towards righting the wrongs which were visiting upon these juveniles and will help restore confidence in the justice system," Grim wrote. "Furthermore, it is not in the interest of the community to relitigate these non-serious cases, nor do I believe that the victims would be well-served by new proceedings."
Grim also asked the high court to have the court records in question released to the Juvenile Law Center, so the JLC can review the files before accepting expungement. Grim wrote that the center may wish to delay that action and collect the records needed to continue in their civil actions. Grim also requested that the records be released to Luzerne County District Attorney Jacqueline M. Carroll for her review.
The senior judge will also conduct a separate review of cases involving more serious juvenile offenses, the court said.
"Today's order is not intended to be a quick fix," Castille said in a statement. "It's going to take some time, but the Supreme Court is committed to righting whatever wrong was perpetrated on Luzerne's juveniles and their families."
One Family's Fight for Juvenile Justice
By Sarah Buynovsky, March 27, 2009
One day after a ruling by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court opened the door for hundreds, possibly thousands, of juvenile cases to be overturned in Luzerne County, one family says the fight for justice is far from over.
Newswatch 16 spoke with Hillary Transue, 17, of White Haven. She was sentenced by now former Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella. She says she's thrilled by Thursday's order from the state Supreme Court.
"Something that was generally a negative thing has turned into something so positive," said Hillary.
The state Supreme Court has cleared the way for juvenile crimninal records such as Hillary's to be erased. The records concern young people who were wrongly sent to a juvenile detention center by Ciavarella. in February, he and and former judge Michael Conahan pleaded guilty to taking millions for keeping that detention center in Pittston Township up and running.
"Like these are children whose lives he just blew off for some money," said Hillary, "and I think that is completely heartless and inhumane."
Hillary was sentenced in 2007 for mocking a school official on an Internet Web site. She knew she would get in trouble, but she never expected to be locked up.
Laurene Transue, Hillary's mother, says she sounded the alarm about Ciavarella after her daughter's sentencing. She calls the state Supreme Court's order fantastic.
"It was just like a moment when you felt like the heavens open up and you're, like, 'Yes! Yes!'" Transue told Newswatch 16.
While things really have opened up in the Transues' lives, the ordeal isn't yet over. They say they want justice for all the juveniles and their families who were hurt by Ciavarella.
"There are so many who are still waiting for justice," said Laurene, "but, this being the first wave, it is very, very exciting."
"I definitely have a lot of concern for all the other juveniles and their families who haven't been expunged, but this is one of the first steps," added Hillary.
The Luzerne County District Attorney's office and lawyers from the Juvenile Law Center will now begin the process of looking through the thousands of cases handled by Ciavarella to see which ones may be overturned.
Kids For Cash : Two Luzerne County Judges are Caught in a Despicable Scheme
Former Luzerne County Judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan and the "Jailing Kids For Cash" Scandal in Pennsylvania