Earlier this year in January, two Pennsylvania judges were discovered to have taken $2.6 million in kickbacks from a local Pennsylvania private juvenile prison company, Mid-Atlantic Youth Services. Judges Mike Ciavrella and Michael Conahan both pleaded guilty to charges of honest services fraud and tax fraud later that month. In addition to accepting payments for placing juvenile offenders in the private jails, the judges also admitted to help facilitate the construction of the facilities by cutting funding from the already existing county-owned juvenile center and using their position of influence to help get the private facilities constructed and expanded (Democracy Now!). The U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, Martin Carlson, unveiled the charges in January, stating:
“These payments were made to the judges, it is alleged, in return for discretionary acts by the judges favoring these businesses, acts relating to the construction, expansion, operation of these juvenile facilities and acts relating to the placement of juveniles in these facilities” (Democracy Now!).
The two judges are out on $1 million bonds and are still waiting sentencing. The two judges gave their guilty pleas as part of a bargain, where they would both receive 87 months in prison, far below the federal standard. However, the deal was dropped in September, and now the judges have also been indicted for Federal racketeering charges. While no charges have been filed against the company who facilitated the bribes, Robert Powell, the owner of the facilities, has admitted to giving the judges money in exchange for these acts (Jurist).
Since the start of the scheme an estimated five years ago, the two judges have convicted over 5,000 juveniles to placement in these private prisons (CNN). The jurisdiction that the judges presided over, Luzerne County, had half of the total waivers of counsel for the entire state’s juvenile cases. This means that a large majority of the cases that the judges saw involved convincing the parents and the offenders that they don’t need a lawyer or were never offered a lawyer in the first place. Kurt Kruger, a 17 year old caught shoplifting DVDs from a Wal-Mart tells his story:
“I was… sentenced in a 90-second hearing. I was sentenced to Camp Adams for a minimum of ninety days. And I was never offered a lawyer, never explained my rights to a lawyer or what benefits it would have. I was just sent away to Camp Adams for at least ninety days, and I spent the better part of four-and-a-half months there” (Democracy Now!).
A 90-second hearing can in no way constitutional. The Fifth Amendment grants a fair trial under the due process clause, and a mere 1.5 minute speed trial with the defendant left without legal counsel is in no way fair. The judges were able to get away with this abuse of the legal system because a number of reasons. The Pennsylvania citizens who voted the judges into office viewed their mass convictions under the facade of a “no tolerance” policy. The district attorneys liked the fact that they were winning cases and getting convictions because it made their court record look better. About 50% of the juvenile cases that these judges saw resulted in placement in a facility; in contrast, only 8.4% of all other juvenile cases in the state resulted in placement (CNN).
The Pennsylvania-based Juvenile Law Center began to notice this disturbing trend when juveniles were placed in facilities for extremely petty crimes, such as stealing a $4 bag of spices from a grocery, a 13-year old trespassing in abandoned buildings, and a 15-year old mocking her assistant principal on MySpace. In most of these cases, the appropriate response would be a lecture and a proverbial slap on the wrist. Instead, these judges took it upon themselves to mark these children as criminals before they even had a chance to become adults and potentially blemish their futures all for avarice. At the end of October, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had thrown out more than five years worth of cases that were judged by Ciavrella, resulting in record expungements for all the wrongfully convicted juveniles (CBS).
Private prison facilities need inmates in order to continue to turn a profit. In the case of these Pennsylvania juvenile facilities, there is (usually) not a large supply of incoming offenders, since traditionally juvenile courts are much more lenient than adult courts because minors are less likely to think about the future consequences of their actions. Because of this, it is possible that Mid-Atlantic Youth Services was dealing with vacancies and thus lower profit margins (because private prisons are generally paid per filled bed). Profiting off the incarceration of adults is bad enough, but to create a corrupt system of bribery and continual juvenile incarceration is an endangerment and exploitation of the youth. I will keep my eyes open to see what the final ruling in this case against these judges winds up being, as well as what actions are taken against Mid-Atlantic Youth Services for administering the bribes in the first place.