In 2007, a frantic call from an alarmed parent prompted Juvenile Law Center to investigate irregularities in Pennsylvania’s Luzerne County juvenile court. We discovered that hundreds of children routinely appeared before Judge Mark Ciavarella without counsel, were quickly adjudicated delinquent (found guilty) for minor offenses and immediately transferred to out-of-home placements. We petitioned the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 2008 to vacate the juveniles’ adjudications of delinquency and expunge their records.
Though the court denied our initial petition, once the United States Attorney alleged that Ciavarella and another Luzerne County judge had accepted nearly $2.6 million in alleged kickbacks from two private for-profit juvenile facilities, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted our request for extraordinary relief. The US Attorney also filed federal criminal charges against both judges.
The scope of the violations of the children’s rights in Luzerne County turned out to be more egregious than anyone could have imagined. From 2003 to 2008, the Luzerne County judicial corruption scandal altered the lives of more than 2500 children and involved more than 6000 cases. Over 50 percent of the children who appeared before Ciavarella lacked legal representation; 60 percent of these children were removed from their homes. Many of them were sent to one or both of the two facilities at the center of the corruption scandal. Believed to be the largest judicial corruption scandal in our history,the story was featured in a 2009 episode of ABC’s “20/20.”
For their involvement in the “kids-for-cash” scandal, Judge Michael Conahan, the facilities’ former co- owner Robert Powell, and the developer Robert Mericle pled guilty to federal criminal charges; Judge Mark Ciavarella was found guilty of various federal crimes following his trial in 2011. In 2009, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court vacated the adjudications of all youth who appeared before Ciavarella between 2003-2008, dismissed their cases with prejudice and ordered all of their records expunged.
In addition to the federal criminal prosecutions and the proceedings before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, we partnered with pro bono co-counsel Hangley Aronchick Segal Pudlin & Schiller to file a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of the children and parents who suffered emotional trauma and financial loss as a consequence of the corruption scheme. The suit seeks monetary damages from the former judges, private facilities, the former co-owner of the facilities and the developer. The suit makes claims under federal civil rights laws and the federal Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. We remain dedicated to improving Pennsylvania’s juvenile justice system and preventing the recurrence of such widespread violations of children’s rights in the future.
To learn more about Juvenile Law Center's work to litigate this scandal and to seek justice on behalf of the children and families involved, visit these pages:
Variety calls “Kids for Cash,” a new film chronicling the Luzerne County, PA “kids-for-cash” scandal, “deeply shocking and continually surprising.”
The film, which features the work of Juvenile Law Center in uncovering and litigating the scandal, is produced and directed by Robert May, who also produced “The Station Agent” and the Oscar-winning documentary “The Fog of War.”
“Kids for Cash” debuts in theaters across the country in February and March 2014.
"Kids for Cash" is currently playing in theaters across the country and, in Spring 2014, will be available for viewing on Comcast OnDemand.
Find out when the film is playing in your community: Visit www.kidsforcashthemovie.com to find a theater near you.
Help get the word out about the need for juvenile justice reform by hosting a Gathr screening of "Kids for Cash." Hosting a screening is the perfect way to spark dialogue about what more can be done for children and families affected by the juvenile justice system, as well as showcase positive programs and policies.
Students, lawyers, parents, law enforcement and social workers across the country have been coming together to watch the film, raise awareness, and take action to advocate for a juvenile justice system that works in the best interest of youth and families.
In Luzerne County, thousands of youth who appeared before ex-judge Ciavarella were encouraged to waive their right to counsel. Youth who waived that right were not given an opportunity to speak with a lawyer or to be represented by a public defender, nor were they asked if they understood that they had the right to speak to a lawyer. These children—many of whom faced system involvement for the first time—had no one to advocate for them but themselves.
For children especially, legal representation is critical. Lawyers help ensure that judges make fair and accurate decisions, that children's rights are not violated, and that children are not unnecessarily incarcerated or transferred to adult criminal court. Without legal representation, the consequences can be dire, and children’s lives can be irreversibly harmed.
1. Establish an unwaivable right to counsel for juveniles.
2. Establish a state-based funding stream for juvenile indigent defense.
3. Assume all juveniles are indigent for the purpose of appointing legal counsel.
“My record will disappear when I turn 18, right?” Contrary to popular belief, juvenile records are NOT automatically destroyed, or “expunged,” at age 18. And while many states keep records of juvenile delinquency confidential under most circumstances, some states’ harmful policies of selling records to credit bureaus, employers, and colleges mean that records of juvenile crime can follow an individual throughout adulthood, affecting his or her ability to join the military, go to college, or find a job.
These policies fail to appreciate that adolescence is a volatile period, and that the majority of teens pass through it without additional legal difficulties.
1. Limit the public availability and collateral consequences of juvenile records.
2. Reduce barriers to expungement of juvenile records by promoting policies that are easy for youth and parents to understand and for professionals to implement.
In Luzerne County, Hillary Transue was sent to Ciavarella’s courtroom for creating a fake MySpace page about her assistant principal. Amanda Lorah was sent there for getting into a fight at school.
In the wake of tragic school shootings like Columbine, schools and community leaders have adopted rigid “zero-tolerance” discipline policies and have installed police in schools, hoping to make schools safer. In reality, by criminalizing behavior that would otherwise have been handled by internal school disciplinary procedures, these actions have turned schools into direct pipelines to the juvenile justice system. Adding to this injustice is the fact that “zero-tolerance” policies disproportionately affect low-income students of color.
1. Enact policies and legislation to reduce school referrals to the juvenile justice system.
2. Minimize the role of School Resource Officers (SROs) and ensure that they are properly trained.
3. Schools should implement proven-effective, evidence-based practices that are known to improve student behavior and academic performance and reduce referrals to court.
Imagine having to return to school when everyone knows that you spent the last year in a juvenile detention center. Imagine that you’re banned from playing your favorite sport, even after you served your time. Imagine having to report to your in-school probation officer because you jumped over a table in the cafeteria—and being told that if you do it again, you’ll spend the next eight years in juvie.
Now imagine trying to graduate, with all these odds against you.
The consequences of removing a child from school are substantial. Beyond disrupting a child’s education, leaving school for a juvenile justice system placement takes an emotional toll that is often devastating and permanent. Children experience intense shame, while also losing in-school support systems. Over 60% of teens in this situation simply choose to drop out.
1. Enroll youth facing system involvement in community-based programs, rather than secure placements, so that they can continue to attend their home schools.
2. If youth must be placed in secure facilities, ensure that the schools at the facilities meet state academic standards and generate career and technical education certificates as well as academic credit that counts toward graduation requirements.
“What were you thinking?!” If you’re the parent of a teenager, you’ve undoubtedly used this phrase more than once—and you probably remember your parents saying it to you, too.
Kids act carelessly and impulsively for a reason. Numerous scientific studies confirm that many teens do not possess the emotional maturity of adults, and that key functional parts of their brains are not fully developed until the age of 25. The United States Supreme Court has recognized this fact in recent rulings affecting juveniles, including J.D.B. v. North Carolina and Miller v. Alabama. And crime statistics reaffirm it: most youth who are arrested for a delinquent act do not go on to become repeat offenders in adulthood.
1. Promote common-sense responses to youth who have committed crimes that take into account their emotional immaturity
2. Whenever possible, connect youth to programs and resources in their community, rather than risking their likelihood of experiencing trauma in an out-of-home juvenile justice system placement.
3. Ensure that the juvenile justice system maintains its rehabilitative—not punitive—focus, so that kids can successfully rejoin their families and communities.
For the children and families involved in the “kids-for-cash” scandal, one of the worst parts of process was being shackled and led out of the courtroom by police officers. Amanda Lorah said it made her feel like a criminal. Charlie Balasavage’s mother said she’ll never be able to forget the image of her son being handcuffed right in front of her.
Going to court, being taken from your family, being treated like a criminal, and being placed in a confined environment with other troubled youth are all traumatizing events—and the trauma doesn’t disappear when youth return to their communities. Many youth return home suffering from anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder, and these traumatic symptoms can last a lifetime, affecting their ability to positively contribute to society
1. Ban practices like shackling and strip-searching that unnecessarily subject children to trauma (allowing them only in extreme cases).
2. Ensure the availability of high-quality, trauma-informed interventions and supports in the community and in less-secure settings, for both youth and families.
3. Hold courts and state and local agencies accountable for making sure that the juvenile justice system helps—not harms—youth who have been traumatized.
The film “Kids for Cash” points out that the United States spends eight times more money to incarcerate youth than it does to educate them—and citizens are paying that price. That’s not to mention the amount of money families must pay to support their system-involved children, including the money they must spend to visit them in secure placements that could be hours away from their home. These families are often already facing financial hardships outside of their child’s system involvement.
The high costs of keeping a child in placement—especially in residential facilities, which can cost up to $600 a day—do not lead to better outcomes. Proven alternatives that help children and families in their own communities are a fraction of the cost.
1. Whenever possible, connect youth to high-quality, low-cost programs in their communities, instead of sending them to out-of-home placements.
2. When children are sent to out-of-home placements, judges should ensure that those placements are the least-restrictive setting possible and should take into account the distance of the placement from the child’s family.
The juvenile justice system’s purpose is to rehabilitate children who need help and to keep the public safe. Yet 95% of youth arrests each year are for non-violent crimes or probation violations. Arresting children for actions like packing ibuprofen in a book bag or creating a fake online profile for a school official hurts them by exposing them to the trauma and stigma of being a “bad kid,” and it does nothing to improve the safety of the public, who was never at risk in the first place.
While taking a highly punitive approach with youth works well for politicians during election campaigns—“I’m going to get tough on crime!”—there is no evidence that it increases public safety; instead, it increases the amount of money the public must pay to wrongly incarcerate those youth.
1. Schools and lawmakers must bring an end to zero-tolerance discipline policies that funnel kids into the juvenile justice system.
2. Youth who commit non-violent crimes or who violate their probation terms should be diverted into alternative community programs, like youth courts and family or restorative group conferences.
No other country in the world punishes children as harshly as the United States, where children as young as seven can be arrested and prosecuted and where a child convicted of murder, regardless of age, can be sentenced to life in prison without the opportunity for release.
The United States incarcerates five times more youth than the next closest country, and spends more money incarcerating youth than educating them. The United States is also the only country—aside from Somalia and South Sudan—that has refused to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
1. Ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to demonstrate our country’s commitment to protecting and ensuring children’s rights, and to holding ourselves accountable to that commitment before the international community.
2. Direct more resources and funding toward educating—not incarcerating—children.
3. Ensure that children are diverted from juvenile justice system involvement whenever possible.
Support our work to advocate for juvenile justice system reform.
In October 2012, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist William Ecenbarger published a book on the "kids-for-cash" scandal, Kids for Cash: Two Judges, Thousands of Children, and a $2.8 Million Kickback Scheme.
Our blog series, "Lessons from 'Kids for Cash,'" takes a deeper look at the systemic problems that allowed this scandal to occur—and that are still happening every day across the country.