Detention scheme was lucrative, harmful
Luzerne County judges Mark A. Ciavarella, center, and Michael T. Conahan, far left, leave the William J. Nealon Federal Building and United States Courthouse in Scranton on Thursday after pleading guilty to corruption charges.
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Jesse Miers says he wanted to do the right thing when he tried to return a stolen gun after seeing a friend's 13-year-old brother wave it around.
Instead, the 17-year-old ended up in shackles on his way to a Butler County juvenile facility -- 270 miles away from his home in Luzerne County.
The judge who sentenced him last year pleaded guilty Thursday to fraud and tax charges in connection with a scheme to take $2.6 million in kickbacks from developers of two juvenile facilities, including Western Pennsylvania Child Care, where Mr. Miers was sent.
"I had maybe 45 seconds in front of [former Luzerne County President Judge Mark A. Ciavarella]," said Mr. Miers, now 19. "He just said 'Remand him,' and they put me in shackles. I was shackled for 13 hours while I waited for them to take me" in a van from the Luzerne County Court House to the juvenile detention center in Allegheny Township, Butler County.
Judge Ciavarella and a co-conspirator, former Luzerne County Senior Judge Michael T. Conahan, agreed in their plea deal to serve a little more than 7 years in prison and to be disbarred.
Federal investigators said they sentenced children to juvenile detention centers in which they had financial interests, and at times did so against probation officers' recommendations and without the children having legal representation.
Federal investigators say the arrangements with the judges were worth tens of millions of dollars to the two centers, which billed county governments for children sent there.
Western Pennsylvania Child Care and Pennsylvania Child Care in Pittston, Luzerne County, are owned by Greg Zappala, brother of Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. and son of former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Stephen A. Zappala Sr.
Dan Fee, a spokesman for Greg Zappala, said Mr. Zappala had no knowledge of the payments to the judges. Mr. Zappala has not been accused of any wrongdoing and is not a target of the investigation, according to a source close to the federal probe.
Attorneys for Mr. Zappala's former partner in the centers, Hazleton attorney Robert Powell, have said Mr. Powell made payments to the Luzerne judges. But they also called Mr. Powell a victim of extortion, and said he ultimately reported the shakedown to authorities.
Also, the federal complaint against the judges describes an unnamed contractor who built the centers as a second provider of alleged kickbacks. Other court records, including documents in two civil lawsuits filed Friday by families of some of the juveniles sentenced in Luzerne County, identify that contractor as Robert Mericle of Mericle Construction in Wilkes-Barre.
A call to Mericle Construction was not returned Friday. Mr. Mericle has not been charged in the case.
The Juvenile Law Center, a Philadelphia advocacy group working on behalf of another group of families, said as many as 2,000 children may have been harmed by the judges' scheme.
Mr. Miers is one of them. His story:
With his home life unstable, he was living on his own at age 16. At 17, he was evicted from his apartment because his paychecks from a tire shop weren't enough to pay the rent. He moved in with the family of a friend.
The friend's younger brother "started telling me about a gun he had and how he was threatening another kid with it. I told him he's going to get in a lot of trouble if he gets caught with it or if somebody gets hurt," Mr. Miers recalled in an interview last week.
After learning how the boy had obtained the gun, Mr. Miers said he tried to return it to the owner's home the next morning before he went to work. But no one answered the door, so he continued on to his job and called an older cousin to ask for advice.
"I didn't know nothing about guns and I was scared because a couple people I know got killed. My friend ... got shot in the face with a gun," he said. "I couldn't just throw it on the side of the road for somebody to find it."
Mr. Miers said his boss overheard the phone call and confronted him about the gun.
"I immediately pulled it out of my pocket and handed it to him. When I gave him that gun, I felt like the whole weight of the world was lifted from my shoulders," Mr. Miers said.
The boss turned over the handgun to police. Mr. Miers, who lost his job a short time later for coming in late too often, said he heard no more about it.
A year later, he said he was a passenger in a car that police pulled over for a motor vehicle violation.
"They ended up running my name, and they tell me there's a warrant out for my arrest," he said.
Charged with receiving stolen property, Mr. Miers was taken to the Pennsylvania Child Care center in nearby Pittston to await a hearing a week later before Judge Ciavarella.
Although he was 18 by then, Mr. Miers was tried as a juvenile because the gun incident occurred when he was 17.
He said he requested a public defender to represent him, but none showed up for his court date. Judge Ciavarella proceeded with the hearing, despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1967 that children have a constitutional right to legal representation.
"That's not news to anybody who works in the law, least of all judges," said Marsha Levick, deputy director and chief counsel for the Juvenile Law Center. "The fact that you could have a juvenile court judge routinely and consistently allowing children to appear before him without counsel is just stunning."
She said she believes the judges would have sentenced young defendants more fairly if attorneys had been present to advise the youths, raise objections and protect their interests.
Mr. Miers said he'd heard Judge Ciavarella had a reputation for disposing of cases quickly, often without letting defendants speak, so he asked court officials to let him write a letter.
"I wanted to state my case, but they only gave me five minutes to write it, and the judge didn't even read it anyway" before sending him away, he said.
Court officials told Mr. Miers the beds at Pennsylvania Child Care, where he had awaited trial, were allotted to other juveniles so he would be sent somewhere else.
That was Western Pennsylvania Child Care, the Zappala-owned center in Butler County -- a five-hour drive from his home. By the time a van arrived from Butler County to pick him up, he had been in shackles for almost 13 hours, he said.
"These judges were lining their pockets at the expense of children by making placement decisions, not in the child's best interest, but in the judges' best interest," Ms. Levick said.
Records show that in 2004 -- Pennsylvania Child Care's first full year of operation -- Luzerne County spent $2.9 million to incarcerate juveniles at various detention centers and boot camps throughout the state, including Mr. Zappala's centers.
That's more than double the amount the county spent in 2002, the year before Pennsylvania Child Care opened. A breakdown of the amount spent by Luzerne County at each center where its juveniles were incarcerated was not immediately available.
Statewide, spending on juvenile detention increased 15 percent during the same time period, according to the state Department of Public Welfare, which reimburses counties for half of their costs for juvenile incarceration.
In many cases, Luzerne County judges handed down harsh sentences to children with no prior records who had committed minor violations, Ms. Levick said.
A 17-year-old who stole a $4 bottle of nutmeg appeared without a lawyer before Judge Ciavarella. He ended up spending more than seven months at three different detention facilities, including Pennsylvania Child Care and Western Pennsylvania Child Care.
"These are situations that never, ever should have crossed the threshold of juvenile detention," Ms. Levick said.
"I have a 17-year-old daughter, and it's traumatizing to think about my child at age 14, 15 or 16 being whisked away to a detention center, being out of contact for days except for a five-minute phone call and her being surrounded by strangers. It's incredibly traumatic, and the travesty is that in Luzerne, it happened to so many kids."
Butler County judges in December stopped sending children to Western Pennsylvania Child Care, which they had been using since it opened in 2005. It was more expensive than other facilities that provided comparable services, said Deputy Court Administrator Tom Holman.
Because of the controversy over Luzerne County's juvenile placements, Allegheny County also has temporarily stopped referring children to the two Zappala facilities while it reviews placements there, county probation director James Rieland said.
Of more than 350 Allegheny County children in juvenile facilities, seven are at Western Pennsylvania Child Care and one is at Pennsylvania Child Care.
"What has happened with the judges' situation in Luzerne County does not seem to have impacted the quality of the programming delivered, but we do want to review the running of the program and make sure kids are safe," Mr. Rieland said.
Although his office prosecuted cases that resulted in children being sent to his brother's facilities, District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. did not participate in them, Mr. Rieland said.
The state Supreme Court is reviewing all juvenile cases heard in Luzerne County since 2003 to see if sentences should be overturned, if new hearings should be held or if records should be expunged.
That won't change the harm done to children who already have served detention sentences, according to the Juvenile Law Center.
"Any disruption in a kid's life is traumatic and psychologically harmful. Lives really get affected by having a juvenile record and having been incarcerated," said Bob Schwartz, the center's executive director. "The psychological effects of having been labeled an offender is something these kids will deal with over time."
Among them is Mr. Miers, who was released from Pennsylvania Child Care in September.
"I'm not going to say I'm traumatized, but in a way I really am just because of all I went through, being shackled all them hours and everything else," he said Friday. "The stuff I went through I'll never forget."
First Published February 15, 2009 12:00 am