Judge in Pa. 'kids for cash' case faces sentencing

As a juvenile court judge, Mark Ciavarella Jr. routinely deprived kids of some of their most basic constitutional rights. Their right to a lawyer. Their right to understand the charges against them. Their right to a fair, impartial hearing.

Ciavarella enjoyed all of those protections while defending himself against federal charges that he took millions of dollars in kickbacks while sending youth offenders to privately owned detention centers. Not that it changed the outcome.

Convicted in one of the biggest courtroom scandals in U.S. history, the disgraced former judge could face more than a decade in prison when he is sentenced in Scranton on Thursday.

"I hope he gets sent away so he can see what he put others through, see what he made kids go through," said Brian Larkin, 19, who once appeared in Ciavarella's courtroom.

The denouement of the "kids for cash" case comes more than two-and-a-half years after Ciavarella and a second Luzerne County judge, Michael Conahan, were charged with orchestrating a scheme to enrich themselves by stocking for-profit detention centers with young offenders. Conahan pleaded guilty and awaits sentencing.

A jury convicted Ciavarella in February of taking a $997,600 kickback from Robert Mericle, a prominent commercial contractor who built the PA Child Care detention center outside Wilkes-Barre and a sister facility in western Pennsylvania.

Ciavarella faces a maximum of 157 years in prison on charges that also include money laundering and conspiracy, but is more likely to get between 12½ years and 15½ years under federal sentencing guidelines, prosecutors have said.

He's consistently denied incarcerating youths for money.

"Never took a dime to send a kid anywhere. ... This case was about extortions and kickbacks, not about 'kids for cash,'" Ciavarella said after the verdict.

Nevertheless, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was forced to throw out about 4,000 juvenile convictions issued by Ciavarella, saying he routinely trampled on juvenile offenders' civil rights, including the right to legal counsel and the right to intelligently enter a plea.

Larkin was 14 years old when he began his own twisting, torturous journey through the Luzerne County juvenile justice system. Attacked by another student in front of their middle school, Larkin started out as a crime victim. In Ciavarella's courtroom, though, the defendant claimed Larkin instigated the attack by smacking him a few days earlier.

On the witness stand, Larkin denied it — and Ciavarella told him he'd have the police investigate him for perjury.

"I was a victim at that point, and he turned it right around on me," said Larkin, a cook from Kingston.

Though he had never been in trouble with the law, Larkin had an idea of what awaited him. He, and everyone else at school, was already acquainted with Ciavarella's brand of justice. That's because the judge himself had visited the school to deliver the message in person.

"I'll give you one warning," he told the students. "This is your warning. If you come before me, you will go away."

Still, Larkin and his father were in disbelief when Ciavarella found him delinquent on the perjury charge after a typically brief hearing. Like many other juveniles who appeared before Ciavarella, Larkin didn't have a lawyer, nor, he said, was he informed of his right to one.

Larkin wound up spending 90 days in a wilderness camp, incarcerated with youths convicted of robbery, drug dealing and other serious offenses.

His experience wasn't at all unusual.

Children in Luzerne County routinely appeared in front of Ciavarella without lawyers, and the judge failed to question young defendants to make sure they fully understood the consequences of waiving counsel and pleading guilty, according to a state commission that investigated the "kids for cash" scandal.

The Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice faulted a court system that allowed Ciavarella and Conahan to act with impunity. It also revealed failures in state oversight.

The House and Senate each passed juvenile justice legislation this summer in response to the scandal, but the bills' ultimate fate is unclear. Advocates are dismayed at the slow pace.

"I think it's disturbing we remain a good two-and-a-half years past the date of indictment and the Legislature has basically failed to act," said Marsha Levick, co-founder and chief counsel of the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, which blew the whistle on Ciavarella's harsh treatment of juveniles years before he was charged.

Other than a few lawmakers, "I don't think the Legislature as a whole has demonstrated leadership," she said. But "we have some traction now."

Separately, the Supreme Court recently approved procedural changes that include limits on the use of courtroom shackling and a presumption that all juveniles are indigent for purposes of appointing counsel.

The U.S. Attorney's Office declined comment on Ciavarella's sentencing. Levick said she doesn't believe there will be any live testimony from kids who appeared in Ciavarella's courtroom or their families, but that many victim impact statements have been collected "which I have every reason to believe will be read very carefully" by Senior U.S. District Judge Edward M. Kosik, who will sentence Ciavarella.

Ciavarella's attorney, Al Flora, met with his client over the weekend to discuss the sentencing. It's not known whether the former judge will speak on his own behalf, or present any character witnesses. He has been working two low-paying, blue-collar jobs while awaiting his fate, Flora said.

"He knows he's going to jail," Flora said.