Judges Accused of Jailing Kids for Cash

"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."

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."

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.

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