Two Pennsylvania Judges sent children to for-profit jails, receiving kickbacks from the detention centers. The two judges had to pay more than $200 million to the hundreds of children victimized, adding to one of the worst judicial scandals in our country.
The United States District Judge, Christopher Conner, awarded $106 million in compensation and $100 million in punitive damages to nearly 300 people in an extended civil suit against the judges. Conner wrote the plaintiffs are “the tragic human casualties of a scandal of epic proportions.“
The two judges Mark Ciavarella, and Michael Conahan, of the judiciary scheme, shut down a county-run juvenile detention center, accepting $2.8 million in illegal payments from the building and co-owner of two for-profit jails. This scheme became known as the kids-for-cash scandal, as the two judges were sending kids, locking them up to guarantee large for-profit jail populations, many of them sent to PA Child Care and its sister facility, Western PA Child Care.
Children as young as eight got sent to the detention centers, many of these kids being first-time offenders, committing crimes such as petty theft, jaywalking, truancy, smoking on school grounds, and other minor offenses. The zero-tolerance policy meant the judge often ordered the children to be found delinquent and immediately shackled, handcuffed, and taken away without giving them a chance for a legal defense or even a goodbye to their families.
“Ciavarella and Conahan abandoned their oath and breached the public trust,” Conner wrote Tuesday in his explanation of the judgment. “Their cruel and despicable actions victimized a vulnerable population of young people, many of whom were suffering from emotional issues and mental health concerns.“
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court annulled over 4,000 juvenile convictions involving 2,300 or more kids after discovering the scheme by the two judges and the for-profit juvenile detention centers. These now-adult victims will never see a percentage of the damage award.
“It’s a recognition of the enormity of the judges’ disgraced crimes,” said Marsha Levick, the lawyer for the plaintiffs and co-founder and chief counsel of the Philadelphia Juvenile Law Center. “It’s a huge victory, to have an order from a federal court that recognizes the gravity of what the judges did to these children in the midst of some of the most critical years of their childhood and development matters enormously, whether or not the money gets paid.“
Sol Weiss, another attorney for one of the plaintiffs, claims he would investigate the judges’ assets. The attorney believes the judges will not have any money to pay the judgment.
Ciavarella, 72, is now serving a 28-year prison sentence in Kentucky, with his projected release date in 2035.
Conahan, 70, received a sentence of more than 17 years in prison but has been released to home confinement since the 2020 pandemic. Conahan only has six years left on his sentence.
US District Judge Conner ruled after witnessing an emotion-filled testimony in 2021 from 282 people, who made court appearances in Luzerne County juvenile court between 2003 and 2008, 79 of whom were under 13 when Ciavarella sentenced them to juvenile detention. Thirty-two of the testimonies were from the parents of the victims.
“They recounted his harsh and arbitrary nature, his disdain for due process, his extraordinary abruptness, and his cavalier and boorish behavior in the courtroom,” wrote Connor.
One unnamed child victim testified against Ciavarella, stating the judge “ruined my life” and “just didn’t let me get my future,” according to US District Judge Conner’s ruling.
“I feel I was just sold out for no reason. Like everybody just stood in line to be sold,” said another plaintiff.
Another victim described himself shaking uncontrollably during a routine traffic stop and reacted like this due to the traumatizing experience of childhood detention centers. He had to give the court medical records to “explain why my behavior was so erratic,” according to the victim.
“Several of the childhood victims who were part of the lawsuit when it began in 2009 have since died from overdoses or suicide,” said Conner.
The US District Judge decided each plaintiff was entitled to a base rate of $1,000 for each day of detention they served in these for-profit jails, with an adjustment based on the particular circumstances of each case. These punitive damages were necessary due to the damage the judges inflicted, such as the “unspeakable physical and emotional trauma on the children and adolescents,” wrote Conner. Only plaintiffs who participated in the process of these courtroom procedures received compensation awards for the damages the judges inflicted.
The builder and owner of the private lockups and their companies settled their case years ago, with their payouts amounting to roughly $25 million.