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?
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."
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.
"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."
Levick turned her findings over to the FBI, and the outcome rocked the Pennsylvania justice system.
Ciavarella and Conahan, who face up to 7 years in prison, had 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.
The judges entered plea agreements in federal court in Scranton in February admitting 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.
"We came to a plea agreement because we would never agree that [the kids' sentencing] was improper. And that's why in the plea agreement you don't see any of the language," Ciavarella said. "I'm not pleading guilty to anything relative to cash for kids, embezzlement, extortion, quid pro quo. Absolutely not."
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."
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 of the Juvenile Law Center 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."
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 asked Grim to examine the juvenile cases, which could mean expunging the records of as many as 2,500 children sent into detention by Ciavarella.
"We have told Judge Grim, take it wherever it goes," Castille said. "And I think my court would be willing to expunge the record of every one of those juveniles if we can't eliminate the specter of taint from what Judge Ciavarella did in treating them."