Friday, February 13, 2009

Hustling Juvenile Delinquents

Usually when we think of juvenile delinquents getting pinched in the joint, we don't think of judges in black robes as the culprits. Not anymore.

Judges Plead Guilty in Scheme to Jail Youths For Profit:

On Thursday [Pennsylvania] judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr., and a colleague, Michael T. Conahan, appeared in federal court in Scranton, Pa., to plead guilty to wire fraud and income tax fraud for taking more than $2.6 million in kickbacks to send teenagers to two privately run youth detention centers run by PA Child Care and a sister company, Western PA Child Care.

While prosecutors say that Judge Conahan, 56, secured contracts for the two centers to house juvenile offenders, Judge Ciavarella, 58, was the one who carried out the sentencing to keep the centers filled.

“In my entire career, I’ve never heard of anything remotely approaching this,” said Senior Judge Arthur E. Grim, who was appointed by the State Supreme Court this week to determine what should be done with the estimated 5,000 juveniles who have been sentenced by Judge Ciavarella since the scheme started in 2003. Many of them were first-time offenders and some remain in detention.
Wow. The lawsuits have already started, as they should, but given the numbers of teen defendants bamboozled by these judges, the suits could actually attain class-action status.

While some seem surprised they could have gotten away with it as long as they did, it really isn't surprising given the "get tough" hang-over still present from the 1990's.

For years, youth advocacy groups complained that Judge Ciavarella was unusually harsh. He sent a quarter of his juvenile defendants to detention centers from 2002 to 2006, compared with a state rate of 1 in 10. He also routinely ignored requests for leniency made by prosecutors and probation officers.

“The juvenile system, by design, is intended to be a less punitive system than the adult system, and yet here were scores of children with very minor infractions having their lives ruined,” said Marsha Levick, a lawyer with the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center.

“There was a culture of intimidation surrounding this judge and no one was willing to speak up about the sentences he was handing down.”
Of course not. Politically, it's still very popular to talk of locking kids up and "throwing away the key," so to challenge it would have been to challenge the conventional, though flawed, wisdom.

I'm a bit surprised too that no charges have been filed against the private facilities themselves, and that so many of the teens sentenced were not represented by counsel (which, as the article notes, is guaranteed via In re Gault, 1967, but can be waived by the juvenile).

For their part, the judges haven't said much, though one apparently "denied sentencing juveniles who did not deserve it." I'd add a cryptic "LOL" right after that.

Meanwhile, the proposed sentences seem rather light.
If the court agrees to the plea agreement, both judges will serve 87 months in federal prison and resign from the bench and bar. They are expected to be sentenced in the next several months. Lawyers for both men declined to comment.
Seven years may appear steep, but given the gravity and consequences of the shake-down, one could make the argument they are "getting off light."

It will be interesting to see where they go in the Federal system. The usual minimum-security "Club Fed" facilities may not be applicable due to the notoriety of the defendants. They may actually end up in some kind of protective custody, which is more a feature of maximum or medium security facilities. Either way, I'm sure they're hoping they won't run into any former defendants who came before them (surprise!).

In all seriousness, there should be a healthy skepticism regarding our exploding privatization in juvenile and adult corrections. And more transparency when it comes to the relationship between those private companies and our judicial officials.

UPDATE: The lawsuits have indeed reached class-action status.

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