Pa. Supreme Court Throws Out Thousands of Juvenile Delinquency Cases

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled late Thursday that almost all juvenile delinquency cases heard by an indicted former judge must be thrown out. The ruling means cases heard by former Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella from Jan. 1, 2003 to May 31, 2008 are in question for fairness and impartiality.

Ciavarella faces criminal charges that accuse him of taking millions of dollars in kickbacks from owners of private detention centers in exchange for placing juvenile defendants at their facilities, often for minor crimes.

VIDEO: 12-Year-Old Spent Two Years in JailPlay

In one reported case, a college-bound high school student served three weeks in juvenile detention for making fun of the school principal on a Web site.

The court said that it "cannot have any confidence that Ciavarella decided any Luzerne County juvenile case fairly and impartially while he labored under the specter of his self-interested dealings with the facilities," and called Ciavarella's actions a "travesty of juvenile justice."

The decision could impact up to 6,500 Pennsylvania youth, whose juvenile detention records will now be erased and their cases dismissed without the possibility of retrial.

Most of the affected youth have already served their time. In Pennsylvania, juvenile criminal records are not automatically expunged when children turn 18, so Thursday's ruling could give thousands of kids a clean slate, said Marsha Levick, deputy director of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia and an attorney for the children. About 100 Pennsylvania children could now be released from juvenile detention or taken off of probation, according to Levick.

"The court's far-reaching order is an exceptional response to the most serious judicial scandal in the history of the United States," Levick told ABC News.

The ruling is the latest stunning development in a story of corruption that first shocked Luzerne County residents in January 2009. Federal prosecutors announced that respected county judges Ciavarella and Michael Conahan had pleaded guilty to tax evasion and honest services fraud. However, their plea deal and relatively light sentence were later rejected by a federal judge who ruled that Ciavarella and Conahan had failed to accept responsibility for their crimes. In fact, Ciavarella had previously told "20/20" that "we would never agree that [the kids' sentencing] was improper."

Now, the two former judges face much more serious federal racketeering, bribery, and extortion charges. All of this is the result of a lengthy investigation by the Internal Revenue Service and the FBI. Ciavarella and Conahan have pleaded not guilty.

"They sold their oath of offices to the highest bidders and engaged in ongoing schemes to defraud the public of honest services that were expected from them," Deron Roberts, chief of the FBI's Scranton office, said at a late January news conference announcing the case.

The judges' arrests shed light on a mystery in Luzerne County: Why were so many kids getting sent directly to juvenile detention after seeing Ciavarella in his Wilkes-Barre juvenile court? And why were those kids sent away in such a rush?

'I Had No Clue What to Say'

Eric Stefanski had never been in trouble before he found himself in front of Ciavarella, who took office in 1996.

"I was 12 years old when I got locked up. I had no clue what to say when he asked me how do I plead," Stefanski told "20/20" correspondent Jim Avila.

"I was 12 years old. I didn't know too much about the court system."

His offense? He went joyriding with his mom's car and ran over a barrier, smashing the undercarriage. No one was hurt, not even Stefanski, but in order to get her insurance to pay for the damage, his mom, Linda Donovan, had to file a police report. Donovan even thought an appearance before a judge would be good for her son and give him a little scare. She wasn't prepared for what happened when Eric came before Ciavarella.

"He read me my charges and said, 'How do you plead?' And I didn't know what to say, so I looked at my mom, and I guess she didn't know I was looking, and I said, 'Guilty,'" Stefanski said.

"That's when I turned around, I looked at my mom and she started crying."

'The Most Egregious Abuse of Power'

Stefanski was locked up for two years. He was not represented by an attorney, his mom said, because she didn't think he needed one.

"His first offense, he's so young, I just didn't think that it was necessary," Donovan said.

It's not supposed to be like this in juvenile court, where incarceration is considered the last resort, legal experts said. But Levick told ABC News she saw a disturbing trend inside Ciaravella's courtroom. ,

And she had the evidence to back it up, she claimed.

"The numbers of children going into placement in Luzerne County tended to be two to three times higher than in other counties," she said.

Levick said kids were being locked up for minor infractions. "A child who shoplifted a $4 bottle of nutmeg," she said. "A child who was charged with conspiracy to shoplift because he was present when his friend was shoplifting. A child who put up a MySpace page, taunting her school administrator.

"I think what we have here in Luzerne County is probably the most egregious abuse of power in the history of the American legal system," Levick said.

Levick turned her findings over to the FBI, and the outcome rocked the Pennsylvania justice system.

Ciavarella and Conahan had allegedly devised a plot to use their positions as judges to pad their pockets. They shut down the old county-run juvenile detention center by first refusing to send kids there and, then, by cutting off funds, choking it out of existence.

They then replaced the facility with a cash cow -- a privately owned lockup built by the judges' cronies -- and forged a deal for the county to pay $58 million for a 10-year period for its use. At the time, Conahan was serving as president judge of the Luzerne County Common Pleas Court, a position that allowed him to control the county-court budget. Ciavarella was the Luzerne County juvenile court judge.

In the judges' original plea deal, they admitted that they took more than $2.6 million in payoffs from the private youth detention center between 2003 and 2006.

Prosecutors said the judges attempted to hide their income from the scheme by creating false records and routing payments through intermediaries. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court removed them from their duties after federal prosecutors filed charges Jan. 26. The investigation is ongoing.

"The defendants engaged in fraud by taking millions of dollars in connection with the construction, operation and expansion of juvenile detention facilities here in Luzerne County," U.S. Attorney Martin Carlson said.

And, according to state statistics, Ciavarella's incarceration rates of juveniles jumped after the privately owned juvenile detention center opened.

"The information alleges that the judges ordered juveniles into these detention facilities, the facilities in which they had a financial interest, and on occasion that those orders were done, despite the recommendation of juvenile probation officers that the child not be detained, not be imprisoned," Carlson said.

Ciavarella denies having sentenced kids for cash, and told ABC News last spring, "I'm not pleading guilty to anything relative to cash for kids, embezzlement, extortion, quid pro quo. Absolutely not."

Losing Faith in the Justice System

Dave Janoski, projects editor of the Citizens Voice newspaper of Wilkes-Barre, said, "You could see that, at the very moment, when they could make the most money, that's when the number of kids spiked."

Many Wilkes-Barre residents exploded with anger when they heard that men they elected, and trusted to judge their children, had profited from their incarceration.

"There's been a lot of outrage," said Terrie Morgan-Besecker, staff writer for the Times Leader newspaper in Wilkes-Barre.

"I think a lot of them have lost faith in the system of justice ... that they went in there blindly thinking that they were going to talk to the judge, he was going to listen to them and hand down an appropriate punishment ... and they're just yanked away from their parents and put in shackles," she said. "It just left them absolutely stunned and not believing that this could happen."

Many people wanted to know who was looking out for the kids as they worked their way through the judicial system.

"I think that we had a conspiracy of silence going on in Luzerne County," Levick said. "There were officers of the court, there were members of the district attorney's office, members of probation, private lawyers, public defenders, who were in the courtroom every day. And they had to know what was happening and whether it was by virtue of intimidation or an unwillingness to get involved. The fact remains that nobody stood up."

When Ciavarella was asked about families' complaints of his rapid-fire brand of justice and trials that lasted only minutes with even first-time offenders sent to detention centers, he told "20/20," "You take a look at their file and you look to see if this was the first time they had a run-in with the law. It might have been the first time they're in front of me. You may be surprised that it's not going to be as clear-cut as they would like you to think."

'The Judge Is Incorrect'

But Arthur Grim, a Pennsylvania juvenile judge himself, who was assigned to review Ciavarella's cases, said Ciavarella is wrong.

"Kids were in there for relatively minor first-time offenses and ended up being placed," Grim said. "The judge is incorrect.

"I'm seeing cases which seem to take in the neighborhood of a minute-and-a-half to three minutes. ... That simply is not the way to do business."

Chief Justice Ronald Castille of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court told ABC News last spring that "the Supreme Court is committed to righting whatever wrong was perpetrated on Luzerne's juveniles and their families." Thursday, he delivered on that promise.

CLICK HERE for more "20/20" reports.