Meet Mark Ciavarella. Growing up in Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania, he had an early brush with the law. Caught stealing a car as a teenager, he escaped jail time as the police returned him to his parents rather than press charges. His father punched him in the face for his transgression. “I didn’t need the system to take care of my problems,” he observed years later. “My parents took care of my problems.” Having had the good fortune to avoid jail time he went on to attend college and law school, and soon became a judge — the toughest and worst Juvenile Court Judge you’ve ever met. He ran his court with an iron fist and a simple philosophy about the children in his charge: “I wanted them to be scared out of their minds.” Scare them he did — and much more. Children who appeared in his court didn’t have a chance (certainly not the chance he was given when caught stealing). Kids as young as ten — more often than not without a lawyer and after just a five-minute “hearing” — were routinely shackled and hauled off to jail for minor transgressions: possessing a stolen scooter bought by the child’s parents; mouthing off at a school bus stop, an 11 year old who called the police after his mother locked him out of the house, a 14 year old who wrote a satirical Myspace profile, and many more. Kids were detained longer if their parents could not pay their detention costs. Zero tolerance on crack. But the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center’s investigation revealed another loathsome inspiration behind Ciavarella’s sentencing decisions other than his hostility and incompetence. Judge Ciavella made money off of his sentencing decisions. Lots of money.
Judge Ciavarella, it turns out, used his administrative authority to facilitate the closing of the county Juvenile Detention Center, and then paved the way for the development of a private, for-profit facility that would hold detained children — a facility that he had a financial interest in. Judge Ciavarella and his colleague Judge Conahan were paid $2.8 million for their help in establishing the agreement between the court and the facility. Ciavarella monitored the financial success of that facility and concealed his profits. A federal jury convicted Judge Ciavarella and, in 2011, Ciavarella and Conahan were sentenced to prison for 28 years and 17 1/2 years, respectively. As part of the fallout from this scandal, the Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice was established and issued a report containing dozens of recommendations that have been implemented ensuring meaningful representation of children, restricting the shackling of children absent a real danger, and requiring an on-the-record recitation of a child’s rights, among other reforms. Convictions were overturned and the impacted children filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Ciavarello. On January 10, 2014, a federal judge granted the children summary judgment, based partly on Ciavarella’s “enactment and expansion of zero tolerance policies dictating how probation officers were to handle violations of probation and other charging decisions.” (We previously covered problems associated with zero tolerance school policies and impactful restorative justice models as an alternative approach ). A documentary film on the Cash For Kids Scandal was just released.
One tragic post-script, out of many: Edward Kenzaskoski was 17 years old, and a talented wrestler who hoped to earn a college scholarship, when he was arrested for the first time on a drug paraphernelia charge. He landed in Judge Ciavarella’s courtroom and was sentenced to jail after which, friends and family member say, he began a downward spiral of depression and additional criminal problems. He shot and killed himself at age 23, before Ciavarella was sentenced. His father reportedly now claims to have framed his son in the hope that a trip to juvenile court might help him.