Marsha- Juvenile Law Center

The kids for cash scandal is about two stories that were running down parallel paths that ultimately converged. One path was really just a path about kids being denied their rights in court. So kids who were appearing in front of judge Mark Ciavarella in juvenile court were routinely, more then half of them were permitted to appear without lawyers and Ciavarella was fine with that. It made the process much faster for him. Hearings were 90 seconds, 2 minutes, very truncated. Very abbreviated. When we think about kids pleading guilty, which as in the adult system, probably 90% end up in pleas anyway, the ideal is that the before the individual pleads guilty there’s a very lengthy, comprehensive, thoughtful back and forth between the judge and the defendant making sure they understand about pleading guilty and what the consequences are. In addition to not have kids appear with lawyers, Ciavarella also routinely accepted juvenile pleas from kids which in juvenile court we call admissions, and he was just literally say, “ Did you do this?” and they would nod their heads so there was no effort to make sure that if they admitted something they could be incarcerated, they’d have a record, their record would follow them. So our entry was all about trying to understand how widespread the violation of kids’ rights inside the court room were and figuring out a remedy. While we were focused on inside the court room, it turns out the US Attorney and the FBI were also very interested in Luzerne county and were focusing on a series of financial transactions that they were tipped off about, that were back and forth between Ciavarella Michael Conahan, who’s another judge in the county, and then a cast of characters. They were wiring substantial amounts of money all over for a period of five years total being about 2.9 million dollars. Most of that came from the developer. There were spare hundreds of thousands some of which come from a former co owner of a for profit juvenile detention centers. As we are figuring out how to get redress for the kids whose rights were violated in court, the US Attorney and FBI are investigating. A part of the story that can be lost, and doesn’t affect the ultimate outcome is initially we were unsuccessful in getting the courts to pay attention… we had had some conversations with the FBI who called us shortly after we had filed something with the PA Supreme Court, so we knew something was going on. When the indictments came down, we very quickly connected all of the dots here and then we filed with the PA Supreme Court. Filed for civil litigation damages in federal court and the PA Supreme Court Governor legislature convened in a branch commission that ultimately made a series of recommendations for reforming PA. So we were on this path, and the FBI and US Attn. were on that path, so then we came together and it became one big story. But our real interest and focus as JLC was really about the violation of kids rights which was, in our view, every bit as egregious as the criminal act and what was going on with the money. That had indirect consequences for the kids but was happening to them in the courtroom had very direct consequences.

The kids who were incarcerated by Ciavarella, the majority of them, were kids who engaged in conduct that arguably wasn’t even criminal. So the lead young woman whose case was the first one that came to our attention, was a “adjudicated delinquent for creating a parody of her vice principal on a social media network. So she was charged with harassment but in fact the vice principal wasn’t aware of it while it was up. Kids were being teenagers, they were saying obnoxious things, but no one was threatening her. It was the kind of conversations that they would have sitting at the lunch table about the vice principal. It happens every day. But she was charged with harassment and admitted to it and ultimately because it was her mom who called us, we actually got her out of the facility fairly quickly and we got her reversed very quickly. She is now an example of someone, who by staying out of the system, ended up finishing high school, graduating college and she’s going to graduate school. That the path that so many of the other kids who were victims of Ciavarella never got on because of being incarcerated, because of this breakthat they experienced from their normal adolescent, growing up experience.

We ultimately succeeded in getting the PASC to order that all their records be expunged and all the adjudications be dismissed with prejudice. So that was a remedy that we got for almost 2500 kids over a period of 5 years who had appeared before Ciavarella when the money was going back and forth.

When we think about over incarceration, the Luzerne County story is very much a part of that story. There were kids who were sent away for 90 days, or a year or multiple years for contact that wasn’t even violent contact, they just didn’t warrant that kind of attention.

What happened in Luzerne County is a micro cosmic example of what happens everyday around the country, which is, we pile on the resources of the system on kids that are more likely to be harmed than helped by what is a very correctional driven intervention.
Juvenile Law Center is the oldest non-profit, public interest law firm for children in the United States. Founded in 1975 by four new graduates of Temple Law School in Philadelphia, Juvenile Law Center has become a national advocate for children’s rights, working across the country to enforce and promote the rights and well-being of children who come into contact with the justice, child welfare and other public systems.

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