April V. Taylor
It’s been three years since Pennsylvania Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella was convicted of accepting bribes for putting kids in jail for personal and corporate profit, but many of the wounds and trauma inflicted by Ciavarella and accomplice Michael Conahan are still fresh, and a new documentary Kids for Cash delves into the heart of the scandal with interviews of the children and parents affected.
What has become one of the biggest legal scandals in the history of this country began in June 2000 when Robert Powell, a friend of Ciavarella and Conahan inquired about how he could go about getting a contract to build a private detention center. Private prisons make millions of dollars in profit and thus can be a lucrative investment, and the group steamed ahead and removed any obstacles in their way. As Judge Chester Muroski reported to the New York Times about the trio, “They were unstoppable. I knew something was wrong, but they silenced all dissent.”
Ciavarella began sentencing juveniles at twice the rate of the Pennsylvania state average, and any attempts at stopping him were futile. Probation officers reportedly tried to request lighter sentences or at home detention for juveniles they felt were too harshly punished but to no avail. From 2003 to 2008, more than 2,500 children were subjected to harsh sentences to private juvenile detention facilities with over 50 percent not having legal representation and 60 percent of the children removed from their homes.
Although Ciavarella denied the kickback payments he received influenced the way he sentenced children in his court room, data shows that the number of children he sent to detention facilities more than doubled between 2001 and 2002 during the time the original kickback plan was hatched. That trend of increased sentencing to detention facilities continued through 2007, according to the New York Times. In 2003, the rates of detention and rates of children appearing without legal representation began to worry State Department of Public Welfare auditors in 2003.
The kickbacks of nearly $3 million dollars received by Ciavarella and Conahan seem miniscule when compared with the price paid by the children and families impacted by the scandal. Fifteen year old Hillary Transue, who had no previous criminal record was sent to a private detention facility for mocking an assistant principal on a MySpace page. Teenager Kurt Kruger was also sentenced to detention as well as five months of boot camp for being a lookout for a friend who stole DVDs from Wal-Mart. Fourteen year old Jamie Quinn spent nearly a year in one of the juvenile detention centers for the first-time offense of slapping a friend in the face after her friend had slapped her.
The juveniles involved have had a civil lawsuit meant to compensate them and their families for emotional trauma and financial loss they experienced because of the corruption scheme filed on their behalf by the Juvenile Law Center. One of the most heart wrenching cases of loss is that of Sandy Fonzo, whose son Edward Kenzakoski was sent to a detention facility and then four months of boot camp. Kenzakoski eventually committed suicide.
There is now an entire generation of kids in Pennsylvania who have lost their trust for authority figures. Even worse, as Michael Moore states in his documentary Capitalism: A Love Story, “Although Wilkes-Barre is located in the United States of America, here, capitalism trumped democracy. Robert Powell, one of the owners of PA Child Care, cut a business deal with Judge Conahan and Judge Ciavarella. Judge Ciavarella then stepped up his conviction rates. Many of these kids were funneled into PA Child Care’s for-profit juvenile facility.”
The two private juvenile detention companies involved in the scandal have settled a civil lawsuit for $2.5 million dollars. Ciavarella was sentenced to 28 years in prison and Conahan to 17 years. Nearly 3,000 of Ciavarella’s convictions were reversed and expunged. While some may feel that what happened in Pennsylvania was just an isolated incidence of scandal and corruption that affected a small percentage of America’s children, here are four statistics that drive home the point that the incarceration of juveniles in the United States is a much bigger issue:
– Two million children are arrested every year in the United States.
– 95 percent of children arrested are for non-violent crimes.
– Sixty-six percent of kids who are incarcerated never return to school.
– The incarceration rate of children in the United States is 5 times higher than any other country in the world.