updated 3/27/2009 6:46:13 PM ET 2009-03-27T22:46:13

The decision this week to overturn hundreds of juvenile convictions was a significant and dramatic first step toward untangling the legal mess left behind by a judicial corruption case in northeastern Pennsylvania.

It may also have been the easy part.

The judge handling the matter for the state Supreme Court now faces the more daunting task of figuring out how to restore the legal rights of children convicted of serious offenses without endangering the public's safety or creating new problems of restitution or sentencing.

"It's going to be an extraordinarily difficult matter to conclude," Berks County Senior Judge Arthur E. Grim, appointed to review thousands of cases handled by a disgraced Luzerne County judge dating to 2003, said Friday. "At this point, I'm not prepared to tell you what the answer will be, because I don't know."

The former judge, Mark A. Ciavarella Jr., could get more than seven years in federal prison after pleading guilty to fraud and tax charges last month in a scheme with another judge to pocket $2.6 million by stocking private detention centers with young offenders.

Many of the offenders were given very brief hearings without lawyers, then shipped off to camps or detention centers for minor offenses, such as lampooning a teacher or simple assault.

Other youngsters, though, were convicted of more serious offenses, such as car theft, drug dealing and assault — but still may not have been given the benefit of due process and must be addressed. Some victims are wary of how those cases will be handled.

After Mike Gunshannon caught a youth trying to break into his car in 2003, police discovered the young burglar in possession of a thick stack of stolen credit cards. The offender went before Ciavarella.

Gunshannon, 53, of Kingston, said many of the kids who landed in the judge's courtroom ultimately deserved what they got — and he fears the victims are being forgotten in the furor over the misconduct.

"If the judge was making his decisions based on personal gain, then he should be locked up for longer than they're giving him. But I don't see these kids necessarily as innocent victims," Gunshannon said. "We've taught children you can violate the rules, and if you (complain) long enough, you can get away with it."

Right to retrial
Still, countless questions remain.

Will defendants with voided convictions be allowed to recoup fines, restitution or other payments they have already made? What will happen to adults whose juvenile convictions have affected their subsequent sentencing in adult court?

Should the state simply release seriously troubled children who need substance abuse services or other counseling? How should the rights of crime victims like Gunshannon fit into the picture? Should some defendants get a new trial?

"It's pretty clear that every one of these kids has a right to a retrial," said Robert Schwartz, executive director of the nonprofit Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia. "But it's also fairly obvious that it's not in the public interest to retry thousands of cases."

The Juvenile Law Center's complaints about injustice in Luzerne County's juvenile court system helped bring the scandal to light. The center has also filed one of the three lawsuits against Ciavarella, retired Luzerne County Judge Michael T. Conahan and others tied to the scandal. Conahan, Ciavarella's co-defendant, also pleaded guilty and awaits federal sentencing.

Grim first must determine which defendants are covered by the state Supreme Court's expungement order, issued Thursday. In the next phase, he will consider cases that involve more serious offenses.

"We think the bulk of the kids up there are entitled to have the records erased and get a fresh start in life," Schwartz said. "But there are going to be some — we don't know how many — where the public safety issues will emerge in a different way and the victim issues will emerge in a different way."

"There are kids who, even though the process may have been tainted, may ultimately have needed the kind of treatment that comes with the juvenile justice system," he said. "It may be they had serious drug and alcohol problems and they're getting treatment for the first time in their lives because they were adjudicated and placed."

Unanswered questions
Restitution plays an important role in Pennsylvania's juvenile courts and will factor into how the court disposes of the Ciavarella cases, said Jim Anderson, executive director of the state Juvenile Court Judges' Commission.

Also, a juvenile offense can raise the minimum sentence that an adult defendant gets in Pennsylvania, so any conclusions about expungement could, in some cases, result in early release of state prison inmates.

"Juvenile adjudication may prevent someone from being hired for certain kinds of jobs, may prevent someone from owning a firearm, all kinds of things," Anderson said.

Grim, who is chairman of the Juvenile Court Judges' Commission, said Friday that in some cases, a new trial might be the best solution. But that raises another problem — Pennsylvania law prevents retrial of anyone who is at least 22 years old as a juvenile.

"That certainly has implications for what will happen," Anderson said. "Does that mean in a very serious case the individual now would be subject to (an adult) criminal proceeding? I think that would be unlikely."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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