Luzerne County recovers after juvenile jail scandal
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At the peak of the Luzerne County "Kids for Cash" scandal, more than 200 juveniles out of 500 cases each year were sent to outside placement facilities.
Now, the number of cases has decreased to around 300, and the number of children sent to detention centers has dropped into the 30s.
"It is tremendous," said Luzerne County President Judge Thomas Burke. "It's all positive."
By the conclusion of the scandal, four judges left the court, including two who were convicted criminally and two others who were removed.
But Luzerne County recently added six new jurists, bringing the court back to its full complement of 10.
"I believe we have turned the corner with regard to public confidence moving in the right direction as it relates to our juvenile court system," Judge Burke said.
Last week, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court announced that full control of the juvenile system had been returned to Luzerne County after more than two years of oversight.
Former judges Mark Ciaverella Jr. and Michael Conahan were accused of taking millions of dollars in kickbacks from the builder of PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care, for-profit youth detention centers, in exchange for sentencing juveniles appearing before them to be placed in the facilities.
The men were initially charged in January 2009 and pleaded guilty, but a federal judge later rejected the pleas, finding that neither man accepted responsibility.
Instead, indictments were filed against them.
Mr. Ciavarella went to trial and was convicted of racketeering, fraud and conspiracy. He was sentenced to 28 years in prison.
Mr. Conahan pleaded guilty and was sentenced in September to 171/2 years.
Berks County Senior Judge Arthur E. Grim, who was appointed by the state Supreme Court to serve as special master to review juvenile adjudications in Luzerne, said he believes that people remain suspicious of the system.
"They don't trust that anything's going to work the way it's supposed to," Judge Grim said. "It's a long way to go. Building up trust takes a long time. Destroying it doesn't take long at all."
But, the judge continued, he believes that Luzerne County is well on its way to recovery.
Judge Grim was appointed special master in February 2009 and tasked with reviewing thousands of juvenile cases handled by Judge Ciavarella.
His review resulted in 2,251 juveniles having their records expunged.
"What we found was a common thread running through all of them -- there was no meaningful colloquy between the judge and kids, and there was no protection of due-process rights."
Further, Judge Grim said, his review showed that 57 percent of the juveniles appearing before Judge Ciavarella had no lawyer.
That number was about 10 times the state average, Judge Burke said.
"The more we got into this, even the district attorney began to realize how manifestly unfair this whole thing was," Judge Grim said.
In the end, prosecutors agreed with every expungement.
"The greatest feeling right now is one of relief that it has been completed," Judge Grim said.
Even after spending two years reviewing what occurred, he could not say for sure what caused the Luzerne County problems to start with.
"Part of it was history. It had been that way for a long time. The judges controlled a lot," he said. "[There was] patronage. If you took a stand against these judges, your job might be at risk."
As he reviewed the cases of children sent to juvenile detention centers for minor offenses -- including that of a girl who made a Facebook page that contained derogatory comments about her high school vice principal -- Judge Grim said he was outraged.
"It's unbelievable. How did I feel? Ticked off."
Often, he said, children are resilient and will recover. But, in at least one instance, a child who had no previous history who was sent to detention committed suicide.
"You're messing with a mind," Judge Grim said.
Since the review's completion, both judges praised the additions in Luzerne County of an evening juvenile reporting center, as well as programs for mentoring and youth aid diversion.
In addition, employees from the public defender's office there are attending more statewide juvenile court training programs, and more resources are being allocated to them.
Also, last week the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency announced that it would distribute $2.15 million in grant money to programs in Luzerne County specifically designed to benefit children in that community.
The money was paid as part of a plea agreement for another defendant in the case, Robert Mericle, a builder who also pleaded guilty.
"In the final analysis, it's a win-win," Judge Grim said. There are better programs for children, no increase in crime and money is being saved from not having to place as many juveniles.
But, he said, there is a chance for backsliding.
"If people aren't vigilant, it wouldn't take long for things to go to hell in a handbasket."
First Published January 9, 2012 12:00 am