John Baer: An important book, a shameful situation

Ecenbarger
Ecenbarger
Posted: November 27, 2012

THE WORST STAIN (so far) on Pennsylvania, a state with more than its share of stains, is that of the Luzerne County judges who sent thousands of children to private prisons in exchange for millions of dollars in kickbacks.

Kids for Cash (The New Press) by former Inky reporter Bill Ecenbarger offers a detail-packed, sickening account of the scandal and its impact.

Anyone caring about courts, justice or children should read it.

Ecenbarger, a member of the Inky team that won a 1980 Pulitzer for coverage of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, interviewed juvenile experts, prosecutors, politicians, kids who were victims and more.

He tells how a whole community and the state judiciary remained silent - struck with "moral laryngitis" - allowing the disgrace to drag on from 2003 to 2008.

Kids from poor or working-class, and often broken, homes, shackled in a courtroom, shoved into vans and jailed for minor offenses. Many were denied legal rights, told they didn't need lawyers. Lives were altered or ruined.

Ecenbarger is scheduled to speak at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Free Library of Philadelphia, on Vine between 19th and 20th.

The stories in his book are heartrending:

* A 13-year-old boy was treated "like an animal" for seven weeks in jail after throwing a piece of meat at his mother's boyfriend during an argument. The boy used to think of college. But by 20, he was working in a restaurant making pizzas, described as having "a lost look about him."

* A girl of 14, an epileptic, was jailed for writing graffiti on stop signs with a felt pen. She was taken from the courtroom without her meds. During her second night in prison, she suffered a grand mal seizure. She hit her head so hard on the cement wall beside her bed that she cracked her dental braces.

* A star high-school wrestler, 17, with the prospect of a college scholarship was sent away before his senior year on a misdemeanor drug charge. He ended up killing himself.

The state's Judicial Conduct Board ignored complaints. The state Supreme Court declined to get involved. It took years, and a federal probe, to stop it all.

In January 2009, judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan pleaded guilty after the feds found that they took more than $2.6 million to sentence kids to privately run jails - in some cases even though probation officers did not recommend it.

The judges' Florida condominium, kept in their wives' names, was used to secure their $1 million bail.

Later, the judges drew long prison terms: Ciavarella, 28 years; Conahan, 17 1/2 years.

The story involved thousands of cases, drew international attention and was labeled the worst judicial scandal in U.S. history.

Ecenbarger reports it all.

"The worst of it was its widespread public acceptance," he tells me.

He notes that in 2004, the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader ran a series on the treatment of juveniles in Luzerne County. It brought almost no reaction. Locals liked the get-tough stuff.

In fact, the area's Friendly Sons of St. Patrick named Ciavarella its "Man of Year" in 2006. And then-U.S. Rep. Paul E. Kanjorski read praise for the judge into the Congressional Record.

Prosecutors, public defenders, other judges, elected officials, social workers and area lawyers all looked the other way, protective and/or fearful of the system.

When a state commission was authorized in 2009 to investigate, its chairman, Judge John Cleland (who later would preside at the trial of Jerry Sandusky), cited "the breathtaking collapse of the juvenile justice system in Luzerne County."

Ecenbarger writes that the 700-member Luzerne County Bar Association never commented on the case.

The book is both a horror story and a warning.

It questions juvenile justice and "our lock 'em up society," noting that the U.S., with 5 percent of the world's population, has 25 percent of its prisoners.

It questions the spread of private prisons, and legal and judicial systems with too much power to intimidate and too little transparency to penetrate.

It's an important book on many levels, and deserves widespread attention.

Email: baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: philly.com/BaerGrowls

Columns: philly.com/JohnBaer

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