Ruining young lives for profit

Nicole Colson reports on two Pennsylvania judges who took millions in kickbacks for keeping for-profit juvenile detention centers filled to overflowing.

Michael Conahan (left) and Mark Ciavarella (right)Michael Conahan (left) and Mark Ciavarella (right)

"I FELT like I had been thrown into some surreal sort of nightmare. All I wanted to know was how this could be fair, and why the judge would do such a thing."

Hillary Transue had good reason to question how the judge overseeing her case could have to come to the decision he did.

In 2007, after a hearing lasting just 90 seconds, the 17-year-old found herself hauled away from court in handcuffs and thrown into a juvenile detention center. She was sentenced to three months for the crime of harassment after she created a mock site on the social networking Web site MySpace that made fun of the assistant principal at her high school.

The sentence was incredibly harsh considering that Hillary was a stellar student who had never been in trouble before--and that she put a disclaimer on the site itself stating that it was a joke.

But now, it's clear why Hillary and hundreds of other kids like her received sentences in a juvenile detention center that were totally disproportionate to their crime.

In a word: money.

Earlier this month, two Luzerne County, Pa., judges--Mark Ciavarella Jr. and Michael Conahan--pled guilty to taking $2.6 million in kickbacks in exchange for throwing juveniles into two for-profit private detention centers, PA Child Care and a sister company, Western PA Child Care. Under a plea agreement, both judges will serve 87 months in federal prison and be disbarred.

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BEGINNING IN late 2002, Conahan, as the president judge in control of the budget, and Ciavarella, overseeing the juvenile courts, moved to close the county-run juvenile detention center, arguing that it was run-down. They argued that the county had no choice but to send juveniles to the then newly built PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care.

The two facilities, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "are [partially] owned by Greg Zappala, brother of Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. and son of former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Stephen A. Zappala Sr."

Conahan apparently secured contracts worth tens of millions of dollars for the two facilities to house juveniles, while Ciavarella made sure the centers stayed full--by railroading vulnerable teens into the centers after trials that sometimes lasted just a minute or two.

In the state of Pennsylvania, juvenile proceedings are closed to the public, and teens can waive their right to counsel at trial. It appears as though some of those who appeared in front of Ciavarella unknowingly waived their right to counsel--only to find themselves suddenly locked up after the abbreviated hearings.

In one case, a 17-year-old who stole a bottle of nutmeg appeared without a lawyer before Ciavarella--and ended up spending more than seven months at three different detention facilities.

Jamie Quinn, was sent away to PA Child Care and several other detention centers for 11 months when she was just 14 years old, after she got in a fight with a friend, and they both slapped each other. "[A]ll that happened was just a basic fight," Quinn told Democracy Now's Amy Goodman. "She slapped me in the face, and I did the same thing back. There [were] no marks, no witnesses, nothing. It was just her word against my word."

The effect on her life was devastating. "People looked at me different when I came out, thought I was a bad person, because I was gone for so long," Quinn said. "My family started splitting up...because I was away and got locked up. I'm still struggling in school, because the schooling system in facilities like these places is just horrible."

While in detention, Quinn was forced to take medication and began to suffer depression. She resorted to cutting herself. "I was never depressed," she said. "I was never put on meds before. I went there, and they just started putting meds on me, and I didn't even know what they were. They said if I didn't take them, I wasn't following my program."

Jesse Miers appeared before Ciavarella when he was 17. He had tried to return a stolen gun after seeing a friend's 13-year-old brother wave it around. When he couldn't find the owner, he turned the gun over to his boss, who later handed it over to police.

A year later, Miers was a passenger in a car that was pulled over for a moving violation--and when police checked his name, he was surprised to find he had a warrant for his arrest. Though Miers says he asked for a public defender, none was present at his hearing in front of Judge Ciavarella.

Because he had heard of Ciavarella's reputation for not letting defendants have a chance to speak, Miers asked to be allowed to write a letter to the judge. "I wanted to state my case, but they only gave me five minutes to write it, and the judge didn't even read it anyway," Miers said.

"I had maybe 45 seconds in front of [Ciavarella]," he told the Post-Gazette. "He just said 'Remand him,' and they put me in shackles. I was shackled for 13 hours while I waited for them to take me" in a van from the Luzerne County Courthouse to the juvenile detention center in Allegheny Township, 270 miles away from his home.

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ACCORDING TO the New York Times, youth advocates had been raising concerns about Ciavarella for years. Between 2002 and 2006, Ciavarella sent juvenile defendants to detention centers at 2.5 times greater rate than the state average. Fully a quarter of the children who appeared before him were locked away, and he routinely ignored pleas for leniency, even when they came from prosecutors and court probation officers.

In all, some 5,000 juveniles were sentenced by Ciavarella since the kickback scheme began in 2003. As the Times noted, "Many of them were first-time offenders and some remain in detention."

Moreover, when the Pennsylvania-based Juvenile Law Center began investigating after being contacted by Hillary Transue's mother, it found that Luzerne County had half of all waivers of counsel by young people in juvenile court in Pennsylvania. Despite the fact that the juvenile court in Luzerne County processes about 1,200 juvenile defendants a year, there is just one public defender on staff for juveniles.

"I've never encountered, and I don't think that we will in our lifetimes, a case where literally thousands of kids' lives were just tossed aside in order for a couple of judges to make some money," Marsha Levick, an attorney with the Juvenile Law Center, told the Associated Press.

Clay Yeager, the former director of the Office of Juvenile Justice in Pennsylvania, told the Times that Ciavarella and Conahan shouldn't have gotten away with railroading kids for as long as they did.

Although juvenile hearings are usually kept closed to the public, "they are kept open to probation officers, district attorneys and public defenders, all of whom are sworn to protect the interests of children," said Yeager. "It's pretty clear those people didn't do their jobs."

While both Ciavarella and Conahan are now headed to federal prison, the case exposes the way in which the trend towards privatization in the U.S. prison system has made money for some, at the expense of justice.

For-profit privatized prisons have become commonplace around the U.S. since the 1980s, when an explosion in the prison population due to the "war on drugs" left state facilities overcrowded. Today, corporations like GEO Group, Corrections Corporation of America and others run private facilities that promise to house prisoners for less than states are able to--by paying guards lower wages and fewer benefits, and cutting costs on inmate housing and care.

Whether anyone affiliated with PA Child Care or Western PA Child Care will face punishment for their role in locking up thousands of kids remains to be seen. So far, no official from either detention center has been charged with any crime. In fact, a letter sent last week from U.S. Attorney Martin Carlson to attorneys for the two detention centers stated that their corporate clients aren't the target of a probe and won't be indicted by a grand jury.

Although two class-action lawsuits have been filed on behalf of the teens who were wrongfully imprisoned, real justice won't be served as long as PA Child Care and other detention centers like it are allowed to remain open--and as long as the U.S. justice system is set up to prioritize profit over the lives of young people.