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Former Pa. judge to go on trial in kickbacks case

Kids in Luzerne County had a powerful incentive to stay out of the courtroom of Mark Ciavarella, a fearsome, zero-tolerance judge who tossed youths into juvenile detention even when their crimes didn't warrant it.
Mark Ciavarella
Former Luzerne County judge Mark Ciavarella, center, leaves the federal courthouse in Scranton, Pa., on Feb. 12, 2009. The disgraced former judge will stand trial in one of the biggest courtroom scandals in U.S. history, a $2.8 million bribery scheme known as "kids for cash." David Kidwell / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Kids in Luzerne County had a powerful incentive to stay out of the courtroom of Mark Ciavarella, a fearsome, zero-tolerance judge who tossed youths into juvenile detention even when their crimes didn't warrant it.

Ciavarella ordered a 13-year-old boy to spend 48 terrifying days in a private jail for throwing a piece of steak at his mother's boyfriend during an argument. An honor roll student who had never been in trouble before was sent to the same jail, PA Child Care, because she gave the middle finger to a police officer. A girl who accidentally set her house ablaze while playing with a lighter languished in PA Child Care for more than a month — forced to shower naked in front of male guards, she says, and prohibited from hugging her family during rare visits.

She was only 10 years old.

PA Child Care's beds were filled with young offenders who didn't belong there, prosecutors allege, because its owner was paying kickbacks to Ciavarella. On Monday, the disgraced former judge will stand trial in one of the biggest courtroom scandals in U.S. history — a $2.8 million bribery scheme known as "kids for cash."

A state panel that investigated the scandal called Ciavarella "Dickensian" in his treatment of juvenile offenders and said that he reigned over juvenile court in a "harsh, autocratic and arbitrary" manner. The ex-judge has said he didn't believe he was breaking the law.

Hillary Transue, 19, plans to watch the trial from afar.

Now a college sophomore in New Hampshire, Transue appeared in Ciavarella's courtroom in 2007 and spent a month in a wilderness camp for building a MySpace page that lampooned her assistant principal. She did not have an attorney when she went before Ciavarella, nor was she told of her right to one.

Whatever Ciavarella's fate, she said, the important thing is that he no longer wields any power. Ciavarella and another implicated judge, Michael Conahan, left the bench shortly after being charged in January 2009.

"I don't care if he's away for seven minutes or seven years," she said. "The man's reputation is destroyed, and he's never going to do this to children again."

Ciavarella's attorney declined comment.

Court documents outline a scheme in which Conahan, then Luzerne County's president judge, forced the county-run juvenile detention center to close in 2002 and helped PA Child Care LLC, a company owned by his friend, secure contracts worth tens of millions of dollars to house youth offenders at its new facility outside Wilkes-Barre.

Ciavarella, who presided over juvenile court, sent youths to PA Child Care and to a sister facility in western Pennsylvania while he was taking payments from the owner and the builder of the facilities, prosecutors said. He ran his courtroom with "complete disregard for the constitutional rights of the juveniles," in the words of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, including the right to legal counsel and the right to intelligently enter a plea.

Megan, whose last name is being withheld by The Associated Press, was perhaps the youngest defendant to appear in Ciavarella's courtroom. At age 10, she had set fire to a piece of paper in her bedroom. She thought she put it out, but the paper smoldered and eventually set her room ablaze. No one was hurt.

Though the landlord didn't want to press charges and Megan had no history of delinquency, Ciavarella claimed she committed arson and sent her to PA Child Care. She left the courtroom in handcuffs and shackles.

In an interview with AP, Megan said she was forced to shower naked in front of two or three men her first morning at the facility. She said she assumed they were guards. She said they told her it was a "one-time" requirement.

"It made me feel really uncomfortable and nervous and shaking because I didn't want anybody to see me naked, and I was really shy," she said.

Megan cried herself to sleep almost every night she was in the detention center. After she got out, classmates teased her mercilessly. She dropped out of school and enrolled in a cyberschool.

The trauma has turned a normal, quiet 10-year-old into an angry and withdrawn young woman of 16 going on 17. She's been diagnosed with anorexia. She has also cut herself, as recently as two months ago.

Megan said she wants Ciavarella to be sent to prison.

"He deserves it. Because now my life, I can't describe it. I've become really depressed all the time. I do things I really shouldn't be doing," she said. "I just want a good therapist, but there are none around there. I'm always so sad."

Ciavarella has vigorously denied the allegation that he sent children to PA Child Care in exchange for money.

Testifying in 2009 in an unrelated proceeding, he said he considered the payments he took to be a "finder's fee" for helping to secure county business for PA Child Care.

"I did not consider what I did to be illegal," Ciavarella said. "I was told it was legal money. I was told it was something that I was entitled to. And for that reason, I did not have a problem with where that money went or how it came to me."

Ciavarella and Conahan initially pleaded guilty in February 2009 to honest services fraud and tax evasion in a deal with federal prosecutors that called for a sentence of 87 months in prison. But their plea deals were rejected by Senior U.S. District Judge Edward M. Kosik, who ruled they had failed to accept responsibility for their actions.

A federal grand jury in Harrisburg subsequently returned a 48-count racketeering indictment against the judges. Conahan pleaded guilty to a single racketeering charge last year and awaits sentencing.

The scandal sent shockwaves through Pennsylvania's court system. The Supreme Court overturned thousands of juvenile convictions issued by Ciavarella.

The Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice, a panel created by then-Gov. Ed Rendell and the Legislature to investigate the scandal, uncovered a breakdown of state oversight and "serious and chronic malfunction" within Luzerne County's juvenile court system. The commission issued dozens of recommendations last May, from reforming the board that disciplines wayward judges to ensuring that juveniles have access to lawyers to reducing or eliminating the use of shackling in juvenile courtrooms.

But change has been slow.

A bill that would have mandated legal counsel for juvenile defendants passed the Senate last year but died in the House. The sponsor, Republican Sen. Lisa Baker, plans to reintroduce the legislation as part of a broader package of juvenile justice reforms.

"We need to put these protections into law. I don't want us to fall into the trap that the crisis is passed and that this isn't going to happen again," she said.

Youth advocates accuse the Legislature of dragging its feet.

"There was an implicit promise that the state was committed to reforming the system and certainly addressing the specific issues that gave rise to the scandal in Luzerne," said Marsha Levick, co-founder and chief counsel of the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, which blew the whistle on Ciavarella's harsh treatment of juveniles years before he was charged. "In terms of things the Legislature had a firm ability to control, there's been no forward movement."

The Pennsylvania court system, meanwhile, is working on procedural changes that would presume all juveniles to be indigent for purposes of appointing counsel; reduce the use of courtroom shackling; clarify the role of prosecutors in juvenile courts; and enhance victims' rights. The Supreme Court must approve the new rules.

John Cleland, a semi-retired state appeals judge who chaired the now-defunct interbranch commission, said he's satisfied that progress is being made.

"I wouldn't go so far as to say that anything we've done would prevent a person with a criminal bent from manipulating the system," he said. "But I think it's also true that the safeguards have been enhanced. They're not foolproof, but they are better."