Pennsylvania Judge Convicted in Alleged 'Kids for Cash' Scheme

A former juvenile court judge could face more than ten years in prison.

February 21, 2011, 12:06 PM

Feb. 21, 2011— -- A former juvenile court judge in Pennsylvania could face more than 10 years in prison after being convicted in what prosecutors called a "kids for cash" scheme.

Prosecutors say former Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella used children as pawns, locking them up unjustly in a plot to get rich. Ciavarella is accused of taking nearly $1 million in kickbacks from owners of private detention centers in exchange for placing juvenile defendants at their facilities, often for minor crimes. Ciavarella claims that the payment he received from a developer of the PA Child Care facility was legal and denies that he ever incarcerated kids for money.

"Absolutely never took a dime to send a kid anywhere," said Ciavarella.

Ciavarella, 61, was found guilty of 12 out of 39 charges on Friday, including racketeering, money laundering and conspiracy, in connection with the nearly $1 million payment from Robert Mericle, the developer of the PA Child Care center. He plans to appeal. Ciavarella was acquitted on charges of bribery and extortion in relation to additional payments from the center's builder and owner.

Families complain of Ciavarella's rapid-fire brand of justice and trials that lasted only minutes with even first-time offenders sent to detention centers.

In one reported case, Ciavarella sentenced a child to two years for joyriding in his mom's car. In another, he sentenced a college-bound high school girl to three months in juvenile detention for creating a website that made fun of her assistant principal. Some of the kids he ordered locked up were as young as 10.

"The numbers of children going into placement in Luzerne County tended to be two to three times higher than in other counties," said Marsha Levick, deputy director of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia.

In October 2009, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court dismissed 4,000 juvenile delinquency cases Ciavarella handled from Jan. 1, 2003 to May 31, 2008. 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."

Though most of the affected youth have already served their time, many parents were outraged by Ciavarella's sentence, including Sandy Fonzo, who could not contain her anger.

Fonzo's son Edward Kenzakoski was sentenced by Ciavarella to juvenile detention in 2003 for possession of drug paraphernalia. Fonzo said her 17-year-old son had no prior record when he landed in Ciavarella's courtroom. She claims Kenzakoski never recovered from the months he served behind bars and years later, at 23, he killed himself.

"Do you remember me? Do you remember me? Do you remember my son? He was an all-star wrestler and he's gone," Fonzo screamed to Ciavarella as he exited the courthouse Friday.

Ciavarella remains free until sentencing. Fonzo said she expected to see Ciavarella carted off in handcuffs as the former judge often did to juveniles he sentenced.

Ciavarella is expected to get a minimum prison sentence of 12 years behind bars, according to prosecutors. To Fonzo, that is not justice.

"You know what he told everybody in court? They need to be held accountable for their actions," she yelled to Ciavarella Friday. "You need to be!!"

The case of alleged corruption first shocked Luzerne County residents in January 2009 when federal prosecutors announced that the respected county judgesCiavarella and Michael Conahan had pleaded guilty to tax evasion and honest services fraud. However, the plea deal and relatively light sentence were later rejected by a federal judge who ruled that Ciavarella had failed to accept responsibility for the crimes.

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

Conahan pleaded guilty to one count of racketeering conspiracy on July 23, 2010. He faces up to 20 years, but has not yet been sentenced.

Teens Sentenced by Ciavarella Speak Out

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 in a March 2009 report. "I was 12 years old. I didn't know too much about the court system."

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

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 Ciavarella's courtroom.

Levick claimed the kids going into placement in Luzerne Country tended to be two to three times higher than other countries and the 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 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 allegedly 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, 2009.

ABC News' Caila Klaiss, Lauren Pearle and Glenn Ruppel contributed to this report.