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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 poor youth.

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 it.

Marsha Levick, chief counsel for the Juvenile Law Center, estimated that between 1,000 and 2,000 youth were given excessive sentences. (Reuters, Feb. 12)

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) organizer.