Written by Joel Rose and Originally Published on NPR on March 3, 2012
More than 2,000 young people in Pennsylvania are trying to put one of the nation's worst juvenile justice scandals behind them. It's been a year since a former judge was convicted in the so-called "kids for cash" scandal.
New rules intended to protect the rights of children took effect this week, but questions about Pennsylvania's juvenile justice system remain.
In Luzerne County, it was no secret that if you wound up in Judge Mark Ciavarella's courtroom, you were in trouble — big trouble.
Laurene Transue and her daughter Hillary appeared before Ciavarella in 2007, after Hillary created a satirical MySpace page making fun of her high school principal. Transue had spent years working for social service agencies in other counties, so she thought she knew how the case would go.
She figured Hillary — who was then a sophomore — would apologize and get a stern lecture and maybe community service. She was wrong.
"We weren't in there 60 seconds," Transue says. "The gavel came down, they took her away, handcuffed her and that was that."
Without realizing it, Transue had waived her daughter's right to counsel and Hillary was sentenced to three months of detention.
"When they took Hillary away, they had to help me out of the room," she says. "I just could not reconcile what had just happened with what I knew should have happened. It didn't make sense to me — the way the judge spoke, his demeanor in the courtroom — I was shocked."
The experience of the Transue family was typical. About half the defendants who appeared before Judge Ciavarella waived their right to a lawyer and kids were routinely led out of his courtroom in shackles for minor offenses. They were 10 times as likely to receive out-of-home placement as kids in other Pennsylvania counties, and it went on like this for seven years.
Righting A Wrong
Ciavarella was convicted in February 2011 of racketeering and conspiracy for taking nearly a million dollars from the developer of two for-profit prisons. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has since vacated 2,251 convictions from his courtroom.
"This was a huge black eye," says Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Ron Castille. "That barely describes the enormity of what was going on up there. Because of that we made a lot of changes in juvenile rules."
The changes are supposed to prevent another "kids for cash" scandal from happening. For one thing, the use of shackles is now strongly discouraged.
Starting this month, defendants in juvenile court will not be allowed to waive their right to counsel, except in rare cases. That's a big step forward, says Marsha Levick at the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, which helped bring the Ciavarella case to light. But Levick says there's another problem: Pennsylvania is one of just a handful of states that do not provide any money to counties to defend those who can't afford a lawyer.
"That means that we really have justice by geography here," Levick says. "Kids in smaller counties, in poorer counties, will often get very poor representation."
Since the scandal, Luzerne County has beefed up its juvenile defense team. Public defender Al Flora says the juvenile unit now has three full-time lawyers, up from just one part-timer, plus two social workers. But Flora has done that mainly through short-term grants and he's fighting with county officials to get the money to keep the unit going.
"The problem we're facing right now in Luzerne County, it seems like people forget what has happened in the past," Flora says.
If Flora can't find the resources to keep the juvenile unit going, he says, basically it would be shut down.
"I would lose my social workers. I would probably end up with one lawyer," he says.
Flora has urged Pennsylvania lawmakers to set aside money for juvenile defense. So has Transue, who attended every day of Ciavarella's two-week corruption trial last year.
"I just felt I had to be there, that I had to see this person go through all the proper procedures," she says. "He received so much that our children did not."
Transue's daughter Hillary is now a junior in college in New Hampshire. Transue says they won't forget Ciavarella anytime soon, though she wonders if state lawmakers already have.