WILKES-BARRE TWP. ‚?? It was at the first hearing of the Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice in October 2009 that Pulitzer Prize winning author William Ecenbarger knew that the story behind Luzerne County‚??s corrupt juvenile justice system begged to be told in a format beyond newspaper stories and TV news reports.
‚??The day the hearings opened, I knew it was going to be a good book,‚?Ě Ecenbarger said at a signing of his newly released ‚??Kids for Cash‚?Ě on Wednesday at Barnes & Noble. ‚??Judge Muroski was one of the first witnesses and his testimony was just riveting.‚?Ě
Luzerne County Judge Chester Muroski had testified he was aware the county‚??s incarceration rate for juveniles was exceptionally high. But he, like others, chalked that up to former Judge Mark Ciavarella‚??s zero-tolerance policy of incarcerating youths for any offense that was committed at school.
Muroski said he became concerned in 2005 that the high placement rates for juvenile delinquents was sapping too much money from the dependency court over which he presided, causing delays in parents getting counseling needed to reunite them with their children. When he complained, Michael Conahan, then president judge, reassigned him to criminal court.
That action, skyrocketing placement rates and his knowledge of the opulent lifestyle Conahan and Ciavarella led raised his suspicion to the point he went to the FBI in 2006.
Conahan and Ciavarella were charged in 2009 with illegally accepting money from the builder and developer of the two juvenile detention centers. Conahan pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy and was sentenced in September 2011 to 17¬Ĺ years in prison. Ciavarella went to trial and was convicted of 12 counts, including racketeering and money laundering, in February 2011. He was later sentenced to 28 years in prison.
In ‚??Kids for Cash‚?Ě (The New Press, $26.95), Ecenbarger shares the stories of some of the juveniles whom Ciavarella sentenced to the centers for petty crimes that sometimes amounted to hardly more than adolescent behavior. He also describes how Ciavarella and Conahan were brought to justice and the decades-long culture of corruption in Luzerne County.
For Ecenbarger, the most moving parts of the book are the stories of the children.
‚??One that stands out most in my mind, there was a girl who was in an argument with her mother or sister, she stormed out of the house and a cop car was going by and she gave the cop the finger. She went before Ciavarella and he sent her away to a place 250 miles away from her home for six months,‚?Ě Ecenbarger said.
‚??This kid was on the honor roll, she was a Girl Scout, she went to weekly Bible meetings, she had never been in trouble in school. All she did was give a cop the finger, which, by the way, is protected by the First Amendment. That‚??s the kind of thing that was really distressing,‚?Ě he said.
Ecenbarger, who was part of a Philadelphia Inquirer reporting team that was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, considers ‚??Kids for Cash‚?Ě the ‚??most important piece of journalism I‚??ve done. It was a powerful, narrative story of injustice. I just think it‚??s a very important topic and there‚??s a lot of ramifications to it. It goes beyond the two judges doing badly. It goes into public acceptance of things that shouldn‚??t be accepted.‚?Ě
Cathy Luksh, a teacher from Hanover Township, said she had been waiting weeks for the book to come out. She had Ecenbarger sign a book for family living out of state and expected the content to be both ‚??shameful and enlightening. ‚?Ľ I think they thought they really were above the law,‚?Ě she said of the two judges.
Freeland resident Tom Crofcheck, who audited the detention centers for the state, tried to prevent county commissioners from approving a lease before the audit was complete, and referred the case to the FBI, received prominent mention in the book. He received an advance copy of the book, but attended the signing to get signed copies for members of his auditing team.
‚??I liked the book. He did a great job. His research was good and the book portrayed it pretty well. I know, I lived it,‚?Ě Crofcheck said.
Read more about William Ecenbarger‚??s book ‚??Kids for Cash‚?Ě in The Times Leader on Sunday.