Kids for Cash

December 18, 2013 - Kids for Cash (William Ecenbarger). Investigative journalist William Ecenbarger provides a comprehensive accounting of the so-called "Kids for Cash" scandal that resulted in lengthy prison terms for two Luzerne County judges and led to comprehensive reforms in Pennsylvania's juvenile justice system.

The scandal broke in January 2009 when the US Attorney announced a federal plea agreement involving judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan. Conahan was Luzerne County's former president judge; Ciavarella was the current President Judge and presided over juvenile court. The feds alleged that, together, Conahan and Ciavarella conspired to close the county's juvenile detention center and arrange for many delinquents to be sent to PA Child Care, a private detention facility near Pittston. In exchange, the feds claimed, the judges received close to $3 million in kickbacks from the owner and developer.

As Ecenbarger lays it out, Conahan and Ciavarella essentially ruled Luzerne County for several years before they were indicted. Each made sure that friends and relatives had jobs in the courthouse. When Ciavarella began calling for the county-run juvenile facility to be closed down, Conahan made it happen. When Ciavarella spoke to students and warned them to stay on the straight and narrow or else, administrators thanked him and invited him back year after year. When Ciavarella sent teen after teen away in shackles following hearings that lasted just a few minutes, any protests were largely ignored.

By the time of Conahan and Ciavarella's initial plea deal in 2009, the feds had already been investigating corruption in Northeast Pennsylvania for several years. Even though Conahan shut down the county juvenile detention facility in late 2002, paving the way for delinquents to be sent to the new PA Child Care facility, the judges didn't appear to show up on the feds' radar until four or five years later.

The organization that did much to bring attention to what was happening was the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia. Once they became aware of the pattern of perfunctory hearings where many juveniles went without legal representation, the attorneys at the JLC began working through the appellate courts to get relief. Within months after the indictments, thousands of juveniles sentenced by Ciavarella over the years had their records expunged.

The legal case against Conahan and Ciavarella dragged on for more than two years. Federal Judge Edwin Kosik (Ecenbarger refers to him as "Edward," but it's Edwin) rejected the initial plea agreements largely on the grounds that the judges did not appear to show any remorse for their actions. Conahan later pleaded guilty and received a sentence of 17 years, about 10 years longer than called for in the original plea.

Ciavarella took his case to trial. In 2011, a federal jury in Scranton convicted him on 12 of 39 counts including racketeering, conspiracy, mail fraud, and filing a false tax return. After the verdict, Ciavarella claimed victory on the grounds that he was not convicted on any charges directly connected to sending kids to detention in exchange for kickbacks. That opinion did not help Ciavarella at sentencing. He was ordered to spend 28 years behind bars, which could amount to a life sentence for a man who was already 61 years old.

As hard as Ecenbarger is on the judges, he is just as hard – if not more so – on the people who stood by and did nothing to stop what was happening. In fact, according to Ecenbarger, many of those people approved.

Ciavarella continues to maintain that he did nothing wrong. That belief is likely based, in part, on the community support he received for his "tough on young criminals" stance. Ciavarella campaigned on that platform when he was first elected to the bench. After 10 years of carrying out that campaign promise, he won a second term. Some of the juveniles he sentenced ended up in his court as a result of parents who thought their own children needed to be taught a lesson. Others had their trouble start in schools where zero-tolerance policies carry the day. Ciavarella believes he was doing what the people wanted, and I can't say that he's wrong about that.

The other thing Ecenbarger points out is the missed opportunities to stop Conahan and Ciavarella. The state Supreme Court initially ruled against the Juvenile Law Center when it asked that the juveniles have their records expunged. Once the indictments were announced, the JLC tried again and the court quickly agreed.

But, perhaps the most glaring error came from Pennsylvania's Judicial Conduct Board. In 2006, the board received a complaint detailing what Conahan and Ciavarella were doing. For reasons that are not clear, that complaint never went anywhere. It took months before the board was even made aware of it. After that, nothing was done until April 2008 when the Board was asked to turn over the complaint to federal prosecutors. It's baffling how the board that's supposed to have oversight of judges in Pennsylvania could do nothing when allegations of wrong-doing are spelled out in detail. Baffling.

I think, ultimately, Ecenbarger's book about the Kids for Cash scandal is a cautionary tale. It's a warning about what can happen when good people do nothing. It's also a reminder to be careful what you ask for because you may not like what you get.