Pa. judges jail youth for profit
Published Feb 19, 2009 8:52 PM
A case of judicial corruption in Pennsylvania has once again exposed the true
nature of the profit-driven prison industrial complex and the warehousing of
Two Pennsylvania judges, Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. and his predecessor, Michael T.
Conahan, received $2.67 million over the last seven years from a private
juvenile detention center. In exchange, federal prosecutors allege, the two
helped the center secure lucrative contracts from Lucerne County, then
sentenced youth to detention for the mildest of infractions.
For participation in this scheme—which damaged the hopes, expectations
and futures of hundreds and perhaps thousands of youth—the two judges
were given a plea agreement that will see them serving a modest 87 months in
federal prison. In addition, the owners of the detention facilities have not
yet been charged with any crime.
In order to carry out the plot, the two judges first argued that the
county-owned detention center was unsafe and decrepit. Conahan then announced
that juveniles would no longer be sent to the facility, and instead to a center
run by Pennsylvania Child Care LLC, a private company.
Both judges admitted on Feb. 12 that they received payoffs from the company;
its sister company, Western Pennsylvania Child Care; and Mericle Construction
Inc., the company that built the facility. With the assistance of Ciavarella
and Conahan, the facility was able to acquire a 20-year, $58 million lease from
the county, which was later overturned.
Prosecutors allege that Conahan established procedures that “created the
potential for an increased number of juvenile offenders to be sent to juvenile
detention centers.” (Republican & Herald, Jan. 27) Detention centers
in Lucerne County receive money from the county government based on the number
of inmates held.
Often, the parents of those sentenced had waived their child’s legal
representation after being told that if they wanted to be represented by a
court-appointed lawyer, they would have to wait weeks and even
months—with their child remaining in detention the entire time.
Ciavarella senenced youth to detention even when probation officers recommended
against it, for “crimes” ranging from stealing change from the back
seat of a car to posting a spoof about a school administrator on the MySpace
social networking Web site.
The New York Times described one such case: “Chad [Uca], 18, was
sentenced to three months of detention by Judge Ciavarella in 2005, when Chad
was in eighth grade. Chad, who had no prior offenses, was charged with simple
assault after shoving a boy at school and causing him to cut his head on a
locker. Chad returned to school his freshman year, but he was so far behind in
classes and so stigmatized by his teachers and peers, his mother said, that he
soon dropped out.”
His mother, Ruby Cherisa Uca, told the Times, “Money is important, but my
son’s life has already been completely destroyed.” Two class-action
lawsuits have been filed by families of the detained youth against the two
judges, the owners and operators of the facility, and the contractor who built
Marsha Levick, chief counsel for the Juvenile Law Center, estimated that
between 1,000 and 2,000 youth were given excessive sentences. (Reuters, Feb.
Entire system guilty
This profit-making scheme calls attention to the overall lack of concern for
youth swept up into the prison industrial complex. Clay Yeager, former director
of the Office of Juvenile Justice in Pennsylvania, noted that typical juvenile
proceedings are closed to the public, but “open to probation officers,
district attorneys, and public defenders, all of whom are sworn to protect the
interests of children. It’s pretty clear those people didn’t do
their jobs.” (New York Times, Feb. 13)
The New York Times described Luzerne County as “an area in northeastern
Pennsylvania that has been battered by a loss of industrial jobs and the
closing of most of its anthracite coal mines.” (Feb. 12)
As unemployment increases because of the global economic and financial crises,
it can be expected that more youth across the country will be thrown into
juvenile detention facilities for petty crimes of survival. Made to pay for the
crimes of capitalism that they did not create, these youth will face increased
hardship in the future.
The writer is a Fight Imperialism, Stand Together (FIST)
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