Pa. film seeks to combat abuses in U.S. juvenile justice system

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WASHINGTON -- There was no popcorn but plenty of policy talk at a movie screening in the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center.

An invitation-only crowd Wednesday heard Pennsylvania teenagers in the film describe being handcuffed, shackled and taken to Luzerne County juvenile detention facilities where they were "scared every day," sleeping with "cockroaches and criminals" and missing their parents -- all for transgressions such as stealing coins from a car and ridiculing a school administration online.

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Rep. Tony Cardenas, D-Calif., invited filmmakers and juvenile justice advocates to the screening of "Kids for Cash," which documents a 2008 scandal that has been called one of the worst abuses of judicial power in history.

Two former Luzerne County judges -- Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan -- are now serving long prison sentences stemming from taking $2.2 million in kickbacks from developers of juvenile detention centers where young people were incarcerated after brief hearings with no defense attorneys present.

"This film really exemplifies how a bad system can go really wrong," Mr. Cardenas said. "Let's do what we can to try to fix the system."

Mr. Casey is working on legislation that would limit the kinds of offenses juveniles can be incarcerated for. Under his proposal minors could not be incarcerated for "status crimes" -- offenses such as curfew violation and truancy, which would not be considered crimes if perpetrated by adults.

Pennsylvania currently does not incarcerate for status crimes, but other states do, and that needs to change, said Marsha Levick, an attorney with the Juvenile Law Center of Philadelphia, which represented many of the children in the Kids for Cash case.

Ms. Levick, who spoke on the policy panel, also wants lawmakers to withhold federal funding from states that refuse to reconsider reactive zero-tolerance weapons policies that have led to school suspensions and expulsions for incidents such as bringing a plastic butter knife to school or drawing a picture of a gun. Many of those policies were enacted as part of an emotional response to the Columbine High School shooting in 1999 in Colorado, she said in an interview after the panel discussion.

She and other panelists suggested that the secrecy of the juvenile justice system contributes to a lack of accountability, but no one offered a clear solution for protecting children's privacy while maintaining enough transparency to foster integrity.

The movie viewing also came as lawmakers are preparing to debate the Smarter Sentencing Act, a bipartisan effort to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders.

Director Robert May presented two sides to the story, including Ciavarella's admission that he accepted a "finder's fee" for suggesting that contractor Robert Miracle bid on construction of a juvenile justice center meant to replace outdated county facilities and his denial of accusations that he took money for sentencing children there.

Rather, Ciavarella said in an interview in the documentary that he always had been tough on juvenile offenders because he wanted to scare them straight, not because he sought financial gain. He had been known for handing down tough sentences to juveniles for years, long before the county contemplated replacing its detention center.

Ciavarella was found guilty of 12 felonies, including racketeering, money laundering and conspiracy to commit fraud. He was sentenced to 28 years in prison.

After the viewing, Mr. May said he wouldn't have produced the film if the former judges hadn't agreed to participate. He said he wanted to tell the stories from both the "villains' and the victims' points of view."

Some in the audience were disturbed by the callousness of Ciavarella toward the children he sentenced, while he tearfully expressed regret that his grandchildren would grow up without knowing him and might think badly of him.

"These judges ... were worried about the impact their behavior would have on their own lives and their own families. It's hard to hear them not start out with any kind of self-reflection and awareness of the fact of the impact they had on nearly 2,500 young people is unconscionable," said Christine M. Leonard, who grew up in Moon and now is director of the Vera Institute for Justice in Washington.

About 100 legislative staffers, attorneys, law students and child advocates attended the screening in an auditorium that normally shows a short film about lawmaking and the construction of the Capitol building.

Leslie-Ann Byam was among the attendees. She is a project director for a Washington company that implements mental health programs for youths.

"I came here to learn and to see how in my little piece of this I can help not to allow a situation like [the Luzerne County scandal] happen again," she said.

She also wanted to be able to understand how the former judges allowed themselves to become corrupt.

"Inherently, individuals are good. You don't go into law or these kinds of helping professions to be punitive, but to make a difference," she said.

Panelists stressed that the "Kids for Cash" documentary is about more than two rogue judges, about more than one county in Pennsylvania and about more than kickbacks.

"The story is really about an abuse of power," Ms. Levick said, directing her comments to legislative aides in the audience. "Many of you are in a position to really make a difference. Understand this isn't just about Luzerne County and it isn't just about Pennsylvania. It's a national story that we tell here and we need national solutions."

Mark Schindler, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, said he's optimistic there will be bipartisan agreement on overhauling juvenile justice. There has to be, he said.

"We are locking up kids that don't need to be locked up, and we are doing incredible harm to people who have unbelievable potential," he said.

Bureau chief Tracie Mauriello:, 1-703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets.

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