Pa. panel in kids-for-cash scandal recommends improved oversight of judges, cites greed

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A state panel investigating one of the nation's most egregious courtroom scandals issued a call Thursday for improved oversight of judges among dozens of other recommendations meant to strengthen the juvenile justice system in Pennsylvania.

The Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice was created by the Legislature and Gov. Ed Rendell to look into the causes of the "kids-for-cash" scandal at the Luzerne County Courthouse, in northeastern Pennsylvania, and to suggest ways to prevent a recurrence there or elsewhere.

The state Supreme Court tossed thousands of juvenile convictions last year after federal prosecutors charged former judges Michael Conahan and Mark Ciavarella with racketeering, accusing them of taking millions of dollars in kickbacks to place youth offenders in for-profit detention centers. Conahan has agreed to plead guilty for his role in the $2.8 million scheme. Ciavarella has maintained his innocence and awaits trial.

In its final report, released Thursday and made available online, the interbranch commission said that corruption in the county courthouse "has been deeply ingrained for many years," citing a combination of "silence, inaction, inexperience, ignorance, fear of retaliation. Greed, ambition, carelessness."

The panel faulted not only the judges but a court system that allowed them to act with impunity.

"We were all struck by basically the collapse of the rule of law," commission chairman John Cleland said at a news conference in Harrisburg. "We had judges who, if they weren't criminal, were incompetent; we had defense lawyers who didn't perform their functions; we had prosecutors who stood by and abdicated their responsibilities."

The commission's work also revealed failures in state oversight of the court system.

The Judicial Conduct Board, the agency that investigates and prosecutes ethics complaints against Pennsylvania judges, has acknowledged that it mishandled a 2006 complaint that made numerous detailed, well-supported allegations against Conahan and Ciavarella. Neither judge was ever investigated, let alone charged by the board.

"Why the board did not launch an investigation into a complaint containing such serious allegations involving two Luzerne County judges is a matter that caused concern and raised many questions for the interbranch commission," the panel said in its report.

Cleland said the conduct board, which operates under strict confidentiality rules imposed by the state constitution, must operate with less secrecy.

"There's very little accountability, and we think over the long term, that's an issue that needs to be addressed," he said.

The panel's recommendations cover a range of issues, from improving the conduct board to ensuring that juveniles have access to lawyers to reducing or eliminating the use of shackling in juvenile courtrooms.

Cleland cited one case in which an 11-year-old boy appeared before Ciavarella owing $488 in fines and costs. When the boy said he didn't have the money to pay it, Ciavarella ordered him to be placed in handcuffs and shackles and sent to detention.

"Nobody in the courtroom said a word," Cleland said. "There's a colossal failure on a lot of levels."

The panel also called for restrictions on juveniles' right to waive counsel and for requiring standby lawyers to be present even after children decline legal representation. 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.

The commission voted Thursday to approve the report and recommendations and send them to Rendell, Chief Justice Ronald Castille and legislative leaders.

State Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, said she plans to introduce a package of bills to implement recommendations that require legislative approval.

"All three branches of state government are put on notice that substantial, specific steps must be taken to remedy injustice, restore public confidence and prevent a future perversion of justice," she said.

Good-government groups said they hope at least some of the recommendations will be carried out.

"Pennsylvania has been so shaken by this that I think there are enough constituencies who are going to push this forward and not let the report gather dust," said Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts.

One recommendation the panel considered, but did not make, was to open all juvenile court proceedings to the public. Under current law, most juvenile court cases are resolved privately.

Cleland acknowledged that allowing media and public access to juvenile court would serve as a check on judicial abuse but said that benefit had to be weighed against the privacy rights of juveniles and crime victims.

"Our concern is that these are kids. And kids do stupid things," he said.

The Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, which blew the whistle on Ciavarella's courtroom practices years before federal prosecutors charged him, lauded the panel for its work but said it did not go far enough.

The law center said juvenile defendants should not be permitted to waive counsel under any circumstance, and it disagreed with the panel's conclusion that juvenile court should remain closed. The law center had also called for the creation of a statewide ombudsman for juvenile defendants and their families.

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Online:

Commission: http://tinyurl.com/2bnusxa