SCRANTON, Pa. – Two Pennsylvania judges agreed Monday to plead guilty to fraud charges accusing them of taking $2.6 million in kickbacks in return for placing juvenile offenders into certain detention facilities.
The plea agreements for Luzerne County President Judge Mark Ciavarella and Senior Judge Michael Conahan call for sentences of more than seven years in prison. Both judges have agreed to step down from the bench.
Authorities say the judges took kickbacks between 2003 and 2007 in exchange for guaranteeing the placement of juvenile offenders into facilities operated by PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care LLC. In some cases, Ciavarella ordered children into detention even when juvenile probation officers did not recommend it.
"They sold their oaths of offices to the highest bidders," Deron Roberts, chief of the FBI's Scranton office, said at a news conference Monday.
U.S. Attorney Martin Carlson stressed the charges were "the first developments in an ongoing investigation" into public corruption at the courthouse in Wilkes-Barre.
PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care have not been charged with wrongdoing.
Luzerne County District Attorney Jackie Musto Carroll said her office would review cases in which offenders might have been improperly placed into juvenile detention.
The Juvenile Law Center, a Philadelphia-based advocacy group, complained last year to the state Supreme Court about the treatment of children in Luzerne County juvenile court, asking for the nullification of decisions in hundreds of cases. Juveniles were often denied their constitutional right to lawyers and were disproportionately sentenced to ill-advised, out-of-home placements, the group said.
"We feel that it's a great day for the young people and the youth of this area to see the system really does work, the system really isn't rigged against them," said Jack Van Reeth, whose daughter was ordered detained in 2007 by Ciavarella. "It's just wonderful to see that the scheme of jailing for dollars has come to an end."
Jessica Van Reeth, then 16, was sent to a juvenile wilderness camp for three months after admitting that she had possessed a cigarette lighter and pipe in school. She told The Associated Press last year that the items were found in a purse she agreed to hold for a friend. The family, expecting probation, waived her right to a lawyer, unaware of the potential consequences.
Jack Van Reeth said Monday his daughter is "extremely happy. She said that this is better than Christmas."