Commission finds multiple failures in Luzerne County

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HARRISBURG -- The juvenile justice system in Luzerne County failed on many levels, leading to a scandal that resulted in two judges facing criminal charges for sending children to a detention facility in which they had a financial interest, the head of a commission reviewing the case said yesterday.

Superior Court Judge John M. Cleland made that observation during the first public hearing of the 12-member Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice, which he heads. The commission is expected to make recommendations to prevent similar problems in the future.

Testimony at yesterday's hearing showed that:

• Colleagues didn't report former Judge Mark Ciavarella, even though they knew he ran his courtroom like an assembly line, incarcerating children after they'd appeared before him for only a minute or two.

• County commissioners didn't keep former President Judge Michael Conahan from shutting down a county-run detention center so he could send children to more expensive private facilities.

• Defense attorneys and probation officers didn't file complaints even though they knew children weren't given access to legal counsel.

• No one complained when the court ordered children to undergo $1,635 psychological evaluations conducted by Mr. Conahan's brother-in-law, even though colleagues on the bench believed the numbers of referrals and the price of the evaluations were excessive.

Mr. Conahan and Mr. Ciavarella have been accused of taking more than $2.6 million in kickbacks from developers of private detention centers in Butler and Luzerne counties where they sent thousands of children, sometimes for minor crimes and often against recommendations of probation officers.

The commission's concern goes beyond that of the action of Mr. Conahan and Mr. Ciavarella, Judge Cleland said.

"Our concern is also the inaction of others -- inaction by judges, prosecutors, public defenders, the defense bar, public officials and private citizens -- those who knew but failed to speak, those who saw but failed to act," Judge Cleland said.

One who did speak up was Judge Chester B. Muroski, who now is president judge for the Luzerne County Common Pleas Court. During the period of the alleged crimes he presided over Orphans' Court and served as a trial judge.

He began to suspect "something was going on" in the juvenile division and contacted the FBI in 2006.

Judge Muroski cooperated with the FBI during a three-year investigation and said he was astonished that the "method of ripping off the county and depriving kids of their rights was so contrived and had so many labyrinths," he told commissioners yesterday.

Voters returned Mr. Ciavarella to office in 2005, even though he already had been publicly accused of sentencing children too aggressively. Judge Muroski testified that school officials pressured judges to lock up disruptive students in detention centers.

"I believe that school districts and police officers and probation officers and many others knew what was going on," said commission member Ronald P. Williams, regional director of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.

The commission intends to explore their inaction as it continues its investigation, Judge Cleland said.

The commission expects to conduct at least two more hearings -- Nov. 9 and 10 in Wilkes-Barre -- to hear from other witnesses, including children who appeared before Mr. Ciavarella and Mr. Conahan.

Anyone with information that might be useful in the investigation may contact the commission through the Web site www.pacourts.us.


Tracie Mauriello can be reached at tmauriello@post-gazette.com or 717-787-2141.


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