Outrage: "Cash for Kids": Firms Behind Juvenile Prison Bribes Reach $2.5 Million Settlement in Civil Suit
We turn to the latest news in the so-called "kids-for-cash" scandal in Pennsylvania, in which judges took money in exchange for sending juvenile offenders to for-profit youth jails. In 2011, former Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella was convicted of accepting bribes for putting juveniles into detention centers operated by the companies PA Child Care and a sister company, Western Pennsylvania Child Care. Ciavarella and another judge, Michael Conahan, are said to have received $2.6 million for their efforts. Now the private juvenile-detention companies at the heart of the kids-for-cash scandal in Pennsylvania have settled a civil lawsuit for $2.5 million. The state has also passed much-needed reforms aimed at improving its juvenile justice system and ensuring such abuses are not repeated. We are joined in Philadelphia by Marsha Levick, chief counsel of the Juvenile Law Center, which helped expose the corrupt judges and represented the families’ class action suit.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to the latest news on the so-called "kids for cash" scandal in Pennsylvania, in which judges took money in exchange for sending thousands of juvenile offenders to for-profit youth jails. In 2011, former Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella was convicted of accepting bribes for putting juveniles into detention centers operated by the companies PA Child Care and a sister company, Western Pennsylvania Child Care. Ciavarella and another judge, Michael Conahan, are said to have received $2.6 million for their efforts.
Some of the young people sentenced under their watch were jailed over the objections of their probation officers. In 2009,Democracy Now! spoke with one of the young people who spent almost a year in one of the juvenile detention centers after being sentenced by Judge Ciavarella as a first-time offender. This is Jamie Quinn.
JAMIE QUINN: I was about 14 years old, and I got into an argument with one of my friends. And all that happened was just a basic fight. She slapped me in the face, and I did the same thing back. There was no marks, no witnesses, nothing. It was just her word against my word. My only charges were simple assault and harassment. And I didn’t even know that charges were pressed against me until I had to go down to the intake and probation and fill out a whole bunch of paperwork.
AMY GOODMAN: I asked Jamie Quinn in 2009 about the action Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella took in her case after taking bribes to do so. This was her response.
JAMIE QUINN: It just makes me really question other authority figures and people that we’re supposed to look up to and trust. I mean, Ciavarella has been a judge for a long time, from what I know, and a well-respected one, is what I thought. And obviously not. It just really makes me question and not trust other people. I mean, if someone like Judge Ciavarella could do this, then it makes me believe that anyone can betray the law and—I don’t know.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, now the private juvenile detention companies at the heart of the kids-for-cash scandal in Pennsylvania have settled a civil lawsuit for $2.5 million. The state has also passed much-needed reforms aimed at improving its juvenile justice system and ensuring that such abuses aren’t repeated.
For more, let’s go to Philadelphia to Marsha Levick, chief counsel of the Juvenile Law Center, which helped expose the corrupt judges and represented the families’ class action suit.
Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Marsha. Just lay out this latest settlement, which follows an earlier one a few years ago, and just the horror of this. These two judges who were found guilty of bribing are in prison now?
MARSHA LEVICK: The two judges are in prison. The latest settlement is a fairly straightforward settlement, as you described it: $2.5 million that will provide further compensation to the juveniles. I really think that this is an opportunity, obviously, to close another chapter on what happened in Luzerne County.
And I would add, I think, really listening to the story leading up to this about the private for-profit centers elsewhere, it’s really important, I think, for us as a country, I think, for your listeners, to know that while we can talk about what happens in private centers, some of which, frankly, are not-for-profit, the same kinds of abuses can occur in state-run facilities, as well.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: What do you see, Marsha Levick, as the wider implications of the settlement that was reached?
MARSHA LEVICK: I think that the wider implications are for us to continue to shine a spotlight on how we, as a country, treat children who are convicted of crimes. We treat them harshly. We—I think that this notion of whether or not private centers are providing the same services as public centers, we need to ask ourselves: What kind of services do we want to be providing for children?
In Pennsylvania, I think that by exposing what happened with the judges scandal, we’ve also had an opportunity to achieve great reforms. We have really changed statutory policies in Pennsylvania with respect to children’s right to counsel, with their ability to obtain appointed counsel on their own, presuming that they in fact don’t have financial resources to do that. We have eliminated, for the most part, shackling in Pennsylvania courtrooms. We have provided and required that judges give a statement of reasons. So when judges in Pennsylvania commit children to public or private-run centers, they need to have an explanation for why they’re doing that. And I think the kinds of stories that we’re hearing about what might be happening in Florida or California, for example, we don’t have the same kinds of protections. We don’t have the same kind of transparency in place.
AMY GOODMAN: In 2011, Sandy Fonzo confronted former Judge Ciavarella outside the courtroom after his sentencing. Fonzo’s son, Edward Kenzakoski, was sentenced by Ciavarella to a youth jail and then a four-month boot camp. Edward committed suicide in June of 2010. Confronting Ciavarella, Sandy Fonzo blamed the judge for her son’s death.
SANDY FONZO: My kid’s not here! He’s dead, because of him! He ruined my [bleep] life! I’d like him to go to hell and rot there forever!
SECURITY GUARD: Ma’am, come on.
SANDY FONZO: No! You know what he told everybody in court? They need to be held accountable for their actions. You need to be! Do you remember me? Do you remember me? Do you remember my son? An all-star wrestler? He’s gone! He shot himself in the heart! You scumbag!
AMY GOODMAN: That was Sandy Fonzo, whose son committed suicide after being put away by Judge Mark Ciavarella. She was yelling at him right outside the courtroom after he was convicted. Marsha Levick, we just have a minute. Do you feel that justice has been done in this case?
MARSHA LEVICK: Oh, I think we’re still in process. There are a couple of defendants whom we are still litigating against. I think that we have achieved remarkable progress. I think that the settlements, I think that the convictions of the two judges and their current incarceration are all putting pieces of the puzzle together. But I think—again, I think as the story leading up to our conversation this morning illustrates, there’s much more to be done across the country. This is a national story. It’s still a national problem. And I think that these conversations, hopefully, are wake-up calls about the kinds of reforms that we need to continue to be thinking about for our kids.
AMY GOODMAN: What’s happened to those prisons for kids in Pennsylvania, the ones that were involved with bribing the judges who are now in jail?
MARSHA LEVICK: They continue to operate. And they—the litigation was not about conditions within these facilities. They continue to bribe—to provide services. This was really about—really, primarily, the action of the judges, their behavior in the courtroom, and how they were so willing to remove children from their homes with really very little due process and very little regard for their rights or interests.
AMY GOODMAN: Marsha Levick, we want to thank you very much for being with us, co-founder, chief counsel of the Juvenile Law Center based in Philadelphia. The Juvenile Law Center helped expose the corrupt judges, is now involved in the families’ class action suit.