September 10, 2009 -- MSNBC.com (US)
Ex-Judges Indicted In Kids-For-Cash Prison Scheme
Pair Allegedly Took $2.8 Million In Payoffs To Put Juveniles In Lockups
From Associated Press
ALLENTOWN, Pennsylvania -- An indictment accuses two former Pennsylvania judges of racketeering, bribery and extortion in connection with a $2.8 million scheme to funnel youth offenders to private detention centers.
A federal grand jury returned the 48-count indictment late Wednesday afternoon. It was made available to the public Thursday morning.
Former Luzerne County Judges Mark Ciavarella Jr. and Michael Conahan are accused of taking kickbacks related to the construction of two youth detention facilities.
The indictment says Ciavarella routinely deprived youth defendants of their right to counsel and ordered kids into detention even when probation officers didn't recommend it.
Prosecutors contend the judges took the payoffs to put juvenile offenders in lockups run by PA Child Care LLC and a sister company, Western PA Child Care LLC. The judges were charged on Jan. 26 and removed from the bench by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court shortly afterward.
No company officials have been charged, but the investigation is still going on.
The high court, meanwhile, is looking into whether hundreds or even thousands of sentences should be overturned and the juveniles' records expunged.
Among the offenders were teenagers who were locked up for months for stealing loose change from cars, writing a prank note and possessing drug paraphernalia. Many had never been in trouble before. Some were imprisoned even after probation officers recommended against it.
Many juveniles without lawyers, despite the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark 1967 ruling that children have a constitutional right to counsel.
'I Have Disgraced My Judgeship'
Ciavarella, 58, who presided over Luzerne County's juvenile court for 12 years, acknowledged in February in a letter to his former colleagues, "I have disgraced my judgeship. My actions have destroyed everything I worked to accomplish and I have only myself to blame."
Ciavarella, though, has denied he got kickbacks for sending youths to prison.
Conahan, 56, has remained silent about the case.
Many Pennsylvania counties contract with privately run juvenile detention centers, paying them either a fixed overall fee or a certain amount per youth, per day.
In Luzerne County, Conahan shut down the county-run juvenile prison in 2002 and helped the two companies secure rich contracts worth tens of millions of dollars, at least some of that dependent on how many juveniles were locked up, prosecutors said.
One of the contracts - a 20-year agreement with PA Child Care worth an estimated $58 million - was later canceled by the county as exorbitant.
The judges are accused of taking payoffs between 2003 and 2006.
Allegations Of Extortion
For years, youth advocacy groups complained that Ciavarella was ridiculously harsh and ran roughshod over youngsters' constitutional rights. Ciavarella sent a quarter of his juvenile defendants to detention centers from 2002 to 2006, compared with a statewide rate of one in 10.
The criminal charges confirmed the advocacy groups' worst suspicions and have called into question all the sentences he pronounced.
Hillary Transue did not have an attorney, nor was she told of her right to one, when she appeared in Ciavarella's courtroom in 2007 for building a MySpace page that lampooned her assistant principal.
Her mother, Laurene Transue, worked for 16 years in the child services department of another county and said she was certain Hillary would get a slap on the wrist. Instead, Ciavarella sentenced her to three months; she got out after a month, with help from a lawyer.
"I felt so disgraced for a while, like, what do people think of me now?" said Hillary in earlier interviews. Hillary is now 17 and a high school senior who plans to become an English teacher.
'I Was Completely Destroyed'
Laurene Transue said Ciavarella "was playing God. And not only was he doing that, he was getting money for it. He was betraying the trust put in him to do what is best for children."
Kurt Kruger, now 22, had never been in trouble with the law until the day police accused him of acting as a lookout while his friend shoplifted less than $200 worth of DVDs from Wal-Mart. He said he didn't know his friend was going to steal anything.
Kruger pleaded guilty before Ciavarella and spent three days in a company-run juvenile detention center, plus four months at a youth wilderness camp run by a different operator.
"Never in a million years did I think that I would actually get sent away. I was completely destroyed," said Kruger, who later dropped out of school. He said he wants to get his record expunged, earn his high school equivalency diploma and go to college.