The Pennsylvania Railroad: In the Keystone State's Juvenile Justice Scandal, Money Changed Everything

By Sullum, Jacob | Reason, July 2011 | Go to article overview

The Pennsylvania Railroad: In the Keystone State's Juvenile Justice Scandal, Money Changed Everything


Sullum, Jacob, Reason


MARK CIAVARELLA, the Pennsylvania judge known as "Mr. Zero Tolerance" ran his courtroom like an assembly line, spending a minute or two on each of the juvenile offenders who appeared before him. If they were not represented by lawyers (and most were not), they usually would be shipped off in shackles to some form of detention, even for trivial crimes such as possessing a pot pipe or making fun of a school administrator.

Aside from defendants and their parents, few people seemed concerned about Ciavarella's mindlessly tough attitude--until it turned out he was receiving kickbacks from the private detention centers where he sent juvenile offenders. But for those suspicious payments, Ciavarella, who was convicted in February of racketeering and related charges, might still be practicing his special brand of injustice, which he and his supporters said helped kids by hurting them.

Federal prosecutors say Ciavarella and Michael Conahan, then Luzerne County's president judge, conspired to replace the county's dilapidated juvenile detention center with new ones built and run by their cronies. Conahan, who pleaded guilty to racketeering last year, arranged a county contract for the centers, while Ciavarella kept them full. In exchange, the judges got $2.9 million.

Years before this arrangement came to light in 2009, it should have been clear something was amiss in Ciavarella's courtroom. In 2004 the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader reported that the share of juvenile offenders given out-of-home "placements"--21 percent under Ciavarella, up from 4.5 percent under his predecessor--was higher in Luzerne County than anywhere else in the state.

The article noted the "skyrocketing costs" of Ciavarella's harshness and suggested that local schools depended on him to handle discipline problems. But it also cited a dramatic reduction in juvenile recidivism. "It looks like it works," a defense attorney told the paper, while Ciavarella insisted he was "trying to help these kids." He was elected to a second 10-year term the following year.

Meanwhile, stories of juvenile offenders mistreated by Ciavarella were trickling out.

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