By Zach Schalk
February 25, 2011 1:09 PM
The juvenile justice world garnered front-page headlines last week. In a story that underscores just about everything that is wrong with our juvenile corrections system, former Pennsylvania judge Mark A. Ciavarela Jr. was convicted for his role in a $2.8 million dollar “cash for kids” scandal. He faces over 150 years in prison after a jury found Ciavarela guilty on 12 counts, including charges that he accepted money from a developer who built two private detention centers for kids in Pennsylvania—though he was not found guilty of accepting bribes to specifically deliver juveniles to the facilities. Michael T. Conahan, another former judge, already faces 20 years in prison after pleading guilty to racketeering charges in 2009 for his role in the affair.
The heart wrenching nature of the case is obvious. Pennsylvania has expunged the records of more than 6,000 youths convicted by Ciavarela, according to The New York Times. Obviously, expunging records cannot undo all of the damage, as proven by the heart wrenching video of a mother confronting the former judge after his conviction hearing.
The state clearly recognized the need for reform as the facts of the case came to light, as the NPR report shows:
A Pennsylvania government commission conducted its own investigation of the "cash for kids" scandal last year. Many courthouse employees told the commission they were afraid to speak up for fear of retribution.
"There was a total collapse of the rule of law," said Judge John Cleland, the commission's chairman.
His panel issued a report in May 2010 that included 44 specific recommendations for reform. So far, only a few have been adopted.
Simple changes like requiring that a lawyer be made available to all juvenile defendants would level the playing field and help to protect against future abuses by corrupt judges and officials. But because the cause of juvenile justice lacks the “sex appeal” of other issues favored by politicians, inaction is generally the norm.
Sadly, it’s more than likely that this moment will pass without any changes to the national discussion about juvenile corrections. But the case crystalizes the root of the system’s problems: adults acting in a self-interested manner instead of on the behalf of the kids caught up in the system. When the bottom line comes down to dollars and cents instead of the well being of our nation’s youth, we have a serious problem that demands solutions. It’s unfortunate that those solutions wont garner as many headlines as the problems that demand them.