WILKES-BARRE — The view from inside Luzerne County Courthouse five years ago worried President Judge Thomas Burke.
Two others on the bench, Judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan, agreed to plead guilty to corruption charges filed on Jan. 26, 2009, by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, drawing international attention to the developing “Kids for Cash” story.
The arrests shredded the public’s confidence in the institution and brought about the real possibility a state-appointed trustee would assume control and oversee the day-to-day operations of the local court system.
The judges’ arrest also kicked off a two-year string of arrests of public officials that included two state senators, a Luzerne County commissioner, a school superintendent, school directors from three districts and others who held influential posts.
The ex-judges’ crimes — along with those of other elected officials — contributed to the switch to a home rule charter from the three-commissioner form of government in the county in 2011.The charter itself did not affect the court system, but included checks and balances to curb abuses, professionalize the offices and established an Accountability, Conduct and Ethics Commission.
But the most pronounced stain was on the county’s judicial system.
Burke, who assumed the role of president judge a year after the filing of charges, and the seven other elected judges found themselves shorthanded and overburdened. In addition to an added caseload, they had to rebuild trust in the system, one case at a time.
They, along with ancillary departments of the court, committed volunteers and organizations — and empowered with legislation developed specifically as a result of the juvenile justice scandal — overhauled nearly every aspect of the system.
“Working our way through a calamity is not the way we would like to see standards elevated and progress made. It’s very evident both these things happened,” Burke said.
He enumerated changes that differentiate the existing juvenile court from the one where Ciavarella presided:
• The placement rate or the percentage of youths taken from their homes and committed to detention centers or other facilities dropped to no more than 10 percent from the 20 to 25 percent.
• The court ensured every juvenile is represented by an attorney.
• The overall number of case dropped to between 300 and 400 compared to 1,500 in 2003, due to alternative dispositions and the use of evidence-based practices in making risk assessments.
• The Juvenile Justice Task Force has worked to improve the juvenile justice system and develop programs in tune with the needs of the community and victims.
Burke acknowledged he speaks from the perspective of a judge on the positive steps taken to recover from the scandal.
“Ultimately, it’s the public that has to make that determination, but I can tell you that from the inside, it’s the belief amongst all of our judges that we have made tremendous progress in restoring trust and confidence in the courts,” he said.
More than 30 charged
On paper the charges first leveled against Ciavarella and Conahan assured them of no more than 87-month prison sentences for their guilty pleas.
The charges alleged they participated in a nearly $3 million kickback scheme connected to the construction of two for-profit juvenile detention centers — PA Child Care in Pittston Township and Western PA Child Care in Butler County — and the placement of youths in those facilities.
But Senior U.S. District Judge Edwin Kosik refused to accept their pleas and set in motion the court proceedings that sent Conahan to prison for 17 years and Ciavarella away for 28 years.
Conahan pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge, one of the 48 counts a federal grand jury handed up against him and Ciavarella in Sept. 9, 2009. Ciavarella challenged the government’s case and in 2011 went to trial, earning acquittals on 27 counts of bribery, extortion and money laundering and convictions on 12 counts of racketeering, money laundering and conspiracy to commit those crimes.
The original criminal complaint against Ciavarella and Conahan turned on a spigot that opened wider each month with the ongoing corruption probe in Luzerne County.
By year’ s end that spigot filled a bucket with charges against more than 30 people including school officials, another judge, businessmen, county officials and a county commissioner.
Ciavarella and Conahan topped the list and became the focus of a book by William Ecenbarger, “Kids for Cash: Two Judges, Thousands of Children, and a $2.8 million Kickback Scheme,” and “Kids for Cash,” a documentary directed by Robert May of the Back Mountain.
Marsha Levick of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia knows the story all too well, having fought for the thousands of children and their parents and guardians affected by the scandal.
The center exposed the constitutional violations committed in Ciavarella’s court as well as the disproportionate number of placements of youths, many of them for minor offenses.
As much as has been accomplished with reforms in Luzerne County, more can be done, Levick said.
“We have the scaffolding in place to build a better system,” she said.
The state Supreme Court and the state legislature adopted changes that should alter the practices that attorneys, probation and law enforcement personnel accepted as routine in Ciavarella’s court. Many of them came from recommendations by the Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice, the special panel created by the Supreme Court and the executive and legislative branches of state government.
The rules put in place by the state’s highest court almost completely prevent the waiver of legal counsel or an attorney to represent a juvenile in court. That’s significant, she explained, saying, “Without counsel kids can’t enforce any of their rights.”
Likewise, the rules prohibit the use of restraints on juveniles during court proceedings, except when necessary for safety reasons. Juveniles said they were routinely shackled after appearing before Ciavarella and sent away.
“We hope very, very few kids are shackled,” Levick said.
Furthermore, the rules require a judge to place on the record the reasons why, after adjudication, a juvenile is placed outside the home. “We had nothing from Ciavarella,” she said. As a result, there was no record to challenge.
The changes put in place better rules for expunging their records and appealing their cases, starting from the time they learn of suspected violations, she added.
The Supreme Court in October 2009 took the remarkable steps of expunging the criminal records of 2,401 juveniles handled by the two former judges and compensating the victims of the juvenile offenders.
The scandal shined a light on local wrongdoings, but Levick stressed they are not isolated incidents.
“I think that one of the messages that we have constantly expressed is it’s a mistake to think Luzerne County was kind of a one off (situation),” Levick said. “These are issues that go on in any given courtroom across the country.”
That’s all the more reason for vigilance on the part of people responsible for protecting the rights of juveniles and the Luzerne County scandal has done that to some extent. “Certainly there are many more conversations going on on what it means to be a zealous advocate for kids,” Levick said.
Those conversations have helped to eliminate the wholesale adjudication and placement of juveniles with the creation of diversionary programs that keep kids out of court.
In the past, Levick said, too many low-level offenders were “pushed into the system” with harmful effects.
“It rarely has positive outcomes,” she said.
The “zero-tolerance” mindset of Ciavarella was accepted and encouraged by school officials and law enforcement as a way to address all juvenile disciplinary problems. Mounting research and evidence contradicts that approach, Levick noted. It does little to mete out effective punishment and undermines kids ’ respect for justice.
Levick said she had hoped the policy would be addressed in the changes made and a more rational approach instituted. “That didn’t happen, but tomorrow is another day,” she said.
Judge Burke agreed that policy that was widely accepted after the Columbine mass-shooting is being reconsidered.
Earlier this month, the administration of President Barack Obama called for schools to abandon “zero-tolerance” and the federal Justice and Education departments sent out letters to school district saying the policies disproportionately affect minority students.
Burke said the court has made a concerted effort to identify what is the most appropriate disposition for juveniles. The judges, rather than relying on “gut feeling to go in one direction or another ” use “evidence-based practices in making risk assessments” or science-based research to guide and inform them.
The judges have to determine what will be the best disposition to ensure against recidivism, address behavioral issues resulting from drug and alcohol abuse and overcome impediments to education and learning, Burke explained.
He credited the Luzerne County Juvenile Task Force with assisting in the reformation of the system.
Task force mission
Michael Zimmerman, who stepped down from the role of chairman last August, said the task force was made up of volunteers from 19 organizations and court-related departments.
The task force was created in May 2009 with Carol Lavery, the state Victim’s Advocate, as its chairperson. One goal was to make the community a better place in light of the scandal, said Zimmerman, chief executive of the Family Service Association of Northeastern Pennsylvania. It still meets quarterly.
“It definitely was kind of a full-scale response on what happened here,” Zimmerman said Wednesday.
The ideas the group bounced around during their meetings led to the creation of programs to address juvenile sex offenders and juvenile fire setters and sent group members to schools for forums on the juvenile justice system.
The youth outreach and prevention program that grew out of the task force worked with 39 families in the last six months and only two of the juveniles involved were returned for placement, Zimmerman said. Another program for high-risk youth dealt with 32 juveniles in placement and of the total 25 were returned home, Zimmerman added.
He acknowledged that it was tough to say whether these type of programs would have been introduced on their own over time. “The work of the task force accelerated it,” he said.
Zimmerman pointed out that the task force never had a budget to work with and sought funding from a number of sources for the programs. He stressed the commitment of the members who had vested interests, professionally and personally, to bring about beneficial changes.
“This is a local response and that’s important for the community to know. It wasn’t somebody (from the outside) stepping in, ” he said.