New Book Revisits Some of the Darkest Days in Juvenile Justice History
Date:  06-04-2012

Pennsylvania judges and cohorts developed “Kids for Cash” plan to fill privately owned juvenile detention centers
When Luzerne County Juvenile Court Judge Mark A. Ciavarella. Jr. announced that the county’s juvenile detention facility was falling apart and unsafe for habitation, citizens across Pennsylvania praised him for his concern. And, when around that same time in 2003, Michael T. Conahan, the then president judge, withdrew funds for the county juvenile facility, promising that juveniles would be sent to brand new modern facilities, those working for juvenile justice reform applauded his decision. But, what only a few insiders knew at the time was that greed, not altruism, was the motivating factor in closing the county-run facility and the building of two for-profit juvenile detention centers in Luzerne County. Or, that the two highly respected judges would find themselves behind bars for their part in a scandal that shocked the nation.

In her new book, The History of the Juvenile System and Civil Corruption in Pennsylvania, author and human rights activist Pinky Stanseski tells how Ciavarella and Conahan teamed up with Robert Mericle, the builder of the two new juvenile facilities, and attorney Robert Powell, co-owner of them, in a plot designed to make all the parties wealthy. Conahan agreed with Mericle and Powell that any convicted juvenile offender in his district would be sent to one of the newly built juvenile detention centers. Ciavarella made sure that juveniles were indeed convicted, by instituting a zero tolerance policy. First time offenders and those who committed minor crimes that ordinarily would have resulted in the charges being dismissed, or at least would not have demanded incarceration, now found themselves locked up. For their part in ruining the lives of children in what the media dubbed the “Kids for Cash,” Conahan and Ciavartella received an estimated $2.8 million.

As Stanseski relates, the two judges might have received millions more in bribes, kickbacks, and extortion money had it not been for the actions taken by the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia after several juveniles contacted the Center complaining about improprieties in sentencing. The Juvenile Law Center discovered that juveniles were routinely tried and convicted without proper counsel. The end result of the ensuing investigation into the Kids for Cash scheme included Ciavarella being sentenced to 28 years in prison, while Conahan was handed down a 17 and a-half year sentence. In November 2011 Powell was sentenced to 18 months. Mericle’s lawyers are still trying to work out a deal that is expected to result in Mericle receiving under two years in prison, along with a multi-million dollar fine.

But, while the players in the Kids for Cash scheme seemly received divine justice, the children that were the pawns in this diabolical plot received a bit of justice of their own. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ordered that the sentences of all the juveniles who appeared before Ciavarella between 2003 – 2008 be vacated and that their records be expunged. In addition, the Juvenile Law Center and the law firm Hangley Aronchick Segal Pudlin and Schiller have filed a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of the children and their parents seeking monetary damages. However, for one child incarcerated by Ciavartella for a minor drug charge justice comes too late. Edward R. Kenzakoski III committed suicide while locked up.

Follow Pinky Staneski on Twitter: @undergradwoman!/undergradwoman