Judges Accused of Jailing Kids for Cash

Photo: Kids Jailed for Cash: With Corrupt Judges, Kids Lives Hang in the Balance

Luzerne County sits in the heart of northeastern Pennsylvania; Wilkes-Barre is the county seat, a hardscrabble, blue-collar city struggling in this latest recession.

People there were shocked in January when federal prosecutors announced that respected county judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan had pleaded guilty to tax evasion and honest services fraud, the result of a lengthy investigation by the Internal Revenue Service and the FBI. Yesterday the Pa. State Supreme Court overturned hundreds of convictions of low-level offenders, ruling that all juveniles who had appeared in Ciavarella's courtroom without lawyers between 2003 and 2008 had not been adequately informed when they waived their right to counsel.

It's not over, however, for all of the other kids Ciavarella sent to jail. Chief Justice Ronald Castille said in a statement that Thursday's decision wasn't intended to be "a quick fix."

"It's going to take some time, but the Supreme Court is committed to righting whatever wrong was perpetrated on Luzerne's juveniles and their families," he said.

"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 charges.

The arrests shed light on a mystery in Luzerne County: Why were so many kids getting sent directly to juvenile detention after seeing Judge 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," Eric 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 Eric, but in order 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, 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,'" Eric said.

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

'The Most Egregious Abuse of Power'

Eric 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 Marsha Levick, deputy director of the Juvenile Law Center, a public-interest law firm in Philadelphia, said she noticed a frightening pattern in Ciaravella's courtroom.

"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.

And she had the evidence to back it up.

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