Juvenile court as cash cow

From the book jacket
From the book jacket

The story of two Scranton judges who locked up thousands of kids - for profit.

Posted: November 25, 2012

Two Judges, Thousands of Children,

and a $2.8 Million Kickback Scheme

By William Ecenbarger

New Press. 272 pp. $26.95


Reviewed by David W. Marston
Zero tolerance.

That was Judge Mark A. Ciavarella's rigid formula for dealing with even trivial juvenile misconduct, and the tough boss of "kiddie court" made sure everyone in Scranton knew it.

But almost no one - except Ciavarella's coconspirator, President Judge Michael T. Conahan - knew that zero tolerance was also the secret ingredient fueling a lucrative kickback scheme that paid millions to the corrupt judges.

Every year, Ciavarella made the circuit of Luzerne County schools, telling the kids that if they ever had the misfortune to appear before him, they would regret it. (Sample: "Do you know who I am? You never want to come in front of me. You should be frightened of me."

He spent the rest of his time inexorably fulfilling his own prophecy. Ciavarella locked up thousands of Scranton kids, some as young as 11, for offenses as minor as skipping school. The one-sided "hearings," with Ciavarella rigging his courtroom procedures to pressure the juveniles into waiving their right to a lawyer, often lasted just a minute or two.

Once remanded (the juvenile-justice euphemism for "convicted"), Ciavarella ordered the juveniles taken into custody forthwith and sent to PA Child Care or Western PA Child Care, for-profit detention facilities.

No time for family good-byes. Before they could even absorb what was happening, they were handcuffed and shackled, with both restraints then snapped onto a thick belt, a Manson-style lockup terrifying and humiliating kids as unthreatening as 11-year-old Ryan, who stood 4-foot-2 and weighed 63 pounds, and whose "offense" had been calling the police after his mother locked him out of their home during a minor argument.

Did Ciavarella's harsh zero tolerance trigger a community outcry?

Actually, the opposite.

As one prosecutor from outside Scranton put it: "Everybody loved it. The schools absolutely loved it. They got rid of every bad kid in their school . . . . Parents loved it. Police loved it. They knew every arrest they made the kid would get sent away . . . the DA loved it because they were getting convictions. They were never losing cases."

And Ciavarella and Conahan loved it too, because as long as the beds were full at PA Child Care, the developer/operators of the center had cash to kick back, ingeniously laundered - $2.8 million total - for the judges to buy a luxe lifestyle and a posh Florida condo.

They were beyond brazen. In 2002, shortly after PA Child Care opened (but six years before their secret stake was revealed), Ciavarella summoned all probation officers to his chambers and said: "I want PA Child Care filled at all times, and I don't care if we have to bankrupt the county to do it. Is that clear?"

Kids for Cash is a gripping - and horrifying - account of the unthinkable injustices against children committed by Ciavarella to keep PA Child Care "filled at all times." While the scandal was widely covered as it unfolded, William Ecenbarger - a Pulitzer Prize- winning former Inquirer reporter - puts the sordid mess into an insightful new context.

Working through more than 200 interviews (although regrettably, none with the two judges themselves) and thousands of pages of court documents, the author shows how the insular, nepotism-tolerant city of Scranton (Exhibit A: Conahan's brother-in-law was the powerful staff psychologist at PA Child Care) offered fertile ground for this outrage.

Ecenbarger also shows how the confidentiality rules intended to protect juveniles were perverted to hide gross injustice. Occasionally, Ecenbarger digresses into unnecessary studies and expert opinions, but as he recounts the improbable events that finally brought these bad judges to justice, the central story builds with the tense drama of a John Grisham legal thriller.

Ecenbarger delivers a harsh verdict against the lawyers and other juvenile justice professionals who were aware of Ciavarella's abuses but stayed silent, but he also singles out five unlikely heroes whose combined efforts finally exposed the scandal: Judge Chester Muroski, who tipped the FBI about his suspicions of kickbacks; the outraged mothers of two children unfairly punished by Ciavarella; Thomas Crofcheck, a dogged state auditor, who instantly sniffed larceny when he read that PA Child Care had an astonishing 28 percent profit; and the lawyers at the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, who waged a creative and ultimately successful legal battle against Ciavarella.

In the end, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ordered the records of all juvenile cases (approximately 3,000) heard by Ciavarella to be expunged. Kids for Cash is a compelling account of the events that started with zero tolerance and ended with total expungement - and Ciavarella and Conahan sentenced to a total of 45 years in prison.

It will interest any reader who cares about justice in America.


David W. Marston, a partner in the Philadelphia law office Gibbons P.C., was formerly the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and a Republican candidate for mayor of Philadelphia. He is the author of "Malice Aforethought," a book about the legal profession, and "Inside Hoover's FBI: The Top Field Chief Reports."

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