Inquirer Editorial: Ensure justice for juveniles

Posted: September 25, 2010

A state Senate measure that passed its first legislative hurdle this week could help thwart a repeat of the two upstate Pennsylvania judges accused of railroading hundreds of teens in a prison kickback scheme.

Under legislation sponsored by Sen. Lisa Baker (R., Luzerne), teens would be required to have lawyers in juvenile courts across the state, with counties providing attorneys for defendants who could not afford to pay.

The measure was approved 13-1 on Tuesday by the Senate's judiciary committee.

Baker's bill is the strongest legislative reform so far in response to the kids-for-cash scandal in Luzerne County that led to the arrest and removal from the bench of former Luzerne County Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. and his colleague Michael T. Conahan.

Federal prosecutors say the two men pocketed $2.8 million in kickbacks from operators of two juvenile detention centers. Presiding over juvenile cases, Ciavarella sent hundreds of youths to the two jails after perfunctory hearings in which the teens - many charged with minor offenses - had waived their right to counsel.

Conahan has pleaded guilty in the case, while Ciavarella will face trial early next year.

Under state law, teens who appeared before Ciavarella had the option to do so without counsel. But Baker contends that Luzerne court officials "misled, cajoled, or intimidated" families into routinely waiving the right to counsel.

"With legal representation missing, so were justice and constitutional protections," Baker told the judiciary panel this week.

As many as half the teens who faced Ciavarella had no attorneys - nearly 10 times the state average. That paved the way for the frontier-style justice in which Ciavarella once asked a teen to determine the length of his jail sentence by counting birds perched on a courthouse window ledge.

The high incarceration rates and the lack of counsel for many Luzerne teens prompted legal advocates at the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center to raise the alarm two years ago. Lawyers at the public-interest firm urged the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to intervene in "the most egregious violation of children's constitutional rights" in the state.

While alarmingly slow to act, the Supreme Court since has ordered the records of 4,500 juvenile defendants wiped clean. But lawmakers and court officials still need to move ahead on several dozen reform recommendations from a special commission that looked at the Luzerne scandal.

One key step: Assure youths have good legal advice when facing a judge.

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