New book reveals the story of the Kids for Cash program | Arts & Living

The American juvenile justice system was founded in the late 1890s on the principle that children develop differently from adults and are therefore less responsible for their misdeeds. Because of these differences, society has a moral responsibility to focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment in cases involving minors.

It is this basic principle that former Judge Mark A. Ciavarella violated when he deprived thousands of Luzerne County teenagers of their most basic constitutional rights in order to profit financially from their incarceration. In the process, Ciavarella created one of the worst court scandals in American history.

Between 2003 and 2008, Ciavarella, a juvenile court judge, sentenced several thousand juvenile defendants to two private, for-profit juvenile detention centers: PA Child Care in Pittston; and Western PA Child Care in Butler County. Encouraged by court personnel, police, probation officers and school administrators, most of the defendants waived their right to counsel, fearing that Ciavarella would invoke a harsh sentence if they refused.

Unnecessarily handcuffed and chained, these young people were interviewed very briefly. Soon after, they were summarily sent to jail that usually lasted between one and three months for “crimes” that were little more than standard teenage behavior: going to school, scribbling graffiti on signs signs, fighting on a school bus and disrespecting a vice principal. on MySpace, the social networking site.

While Ciavarella has been praised by school officials, attorneys and police for what he called a “zero tolerance policy” to clean up juvenile crime, he and his co-conspirator behind the scenes, l former presiding judge Michael T. Conahan, received millions of dollars. dollars by the owners of the two juvenile detention centres. In exchange, the owners received a steady stream of inmates. The victims were children who were treated like commodities under a Kids for Cash program. As a result of their incarceration, many continue to struggle with severe depression, low self-esteem and substance abuse.

How could two judges conspire for five years to deprive thousands of minors of their most basic constitutional rights and send them in chains to detention centers in which the judges had personal financial interests?

William Ecenbarger, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist who covered the case for the Philadelphia Inquirer, provides a compelling answer to this question in his new book, “Kids for Cash: Two Judges, Thousands of Children and a $2.8 Million Kickback Scheme.” It is a well-researched and insightful account of corruption within the juvenile justice system; essential reading for those interested in social justice, court reform and children’s rights.

According to Ecenbarger, the scandal resulted from a “unique confluence of factors”, including greed, evil, opportunity, secrecy, public indifference and location. One of its main focal points is Luzerne County’s “history of corruption, nepotism and mob violence”.

Ecenbarger argues that the anthracite industry has cultivated a culture of corruption in which coal miners, mine officials and even the United Mine Workers union have formed alliances with organized crime to make profits at the expense of miners. . Many otherwise honest citizens participated in the shady dealings to improve their financial situation. Others, mostly newly arrived immigrants and first-generation Americans, remained silent in the face of injustice, fearing losing their jobs or their lives.

Ciavarella understood this heritage and played it to the end. Using his authority as a juvenile judge and personal contacts, he created a “cash cow” for himself and Conahan at the expense of thousands of youths and taxpayers. He began in 2001 by arranging with commercial real estate developer Robert K. Mericle to build a new juvenile detention center in Pittston.

Known as PA Child Care, the facility would replace the county-owned center on River Street in Wilkes-Barre.

In order to ensure a steady flow of inmates to the new facility, Ciavarella enlisted the support of Conahan, who ordered the Juvenile Probation Service to stop sending youths to Wilkes-Barre Institution despite the fact that the State utility had recently inspected and renewed its license. Shortly thereafter, Conahan signed a secret “placement guarantee agreement” with PA Child Care ensuring the court would pay annual rents of $1,314,000 to house juvenile offenders.

When the new facility opened in 2003, Ciavarella and Conahan began collecting finder’s fees of $997,000, but the payments were concealed by a money laundering scheme. Disguised as a brokerage fee, the money passed from Mericle to local lawyer Robert Powell, also co-owner of PA Child Care, before finally being deposited in bank accounts controlled by Conahan and Ciavarella.

Over the next six years, Ciavarella and Conahan supplemented their six-figure annual salaries by treating Luzerne County for a percentage of the $16 million a year it paid to juvenile detention centers. Considering that a day at PA Child Care could cost up to $300, they made a handsome profit totaling around $2.8 million.

Both judges enjoyed their new found wealth. They bought an RV together, which they used for vacations and for tailgate weekends at Penn State football games. As the kickbacks poured in, they aimed higher, buying a 3,000 square foot condominium in Palm Beach County, Florida for $785,000. To facilitate the purchase, the judges created an entity they called “Pinnacle Group of Jupiter LLC”, a Florida-based company that was created in the names of their wives. “Pinnacle Group” would later serve as a convenient vehicle to launder the money they received from Powell, co-owner of the juvenile detention center.

As Ecenbarger also points out, “nepotism” and “deference to authority” were other notable characteristics of corrupt Anthracite culture. Historically, these features were part of standard operating procedure in industry, local government, and even public schools where connections guaranteed jobs as well as silence in the face of injustice.

What made the “Kids-for-Cash” scandal so heinous was the conspiracy of silence that took root among court staff as well as the very people tasked with protecting the welfare of young people: officers of probation and educators. Even public defenders and prosecutors in Ciavarella’s courtroom remained silent about violations of the judge’s rights, despite being required to report them under the Supreme Court’s “rules of professional conduct.” Pennsylvania adopted in 1988.

The questionable practices went unchallenged, becoming accepted practices either because Ciavarella and Conahan intimidated those who might otherwise have challenged them, or because the judges ensured that court staff were populated with political cronies and relatives.

Like their immigrant ancestors, probation officers, lawyers and educators have become co-conspirators in the scandal. They too lacked the courage to challenge injustice, failing to understand the words of the Italian poet Dante who wrote that “the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who remained silent in times of great crisis. moral”.

It wasn’t until 2009, when federal authorities began investigating the high number of child placements in Luzerne County, that the scandal came to light. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court immediately overturned the judgments of all the youths who appeared before Ciavarella between 2003 and 2008, dismissed their cases with prejudice, and ordered all of their records expunged.

For their involvement, Conahan, Powell and Mericle pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges. In 2011, Ciavarella was convicted and found guilty of 12 counts of racketeering and money laundering after a considerably longer and fairer trial than he granted his young victims. . He is currently serving a 28-year sentence in federal prison.

William Kashatus teaches history at Luzerne County Community College. He can be contacted at

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