WILKES-BARRE — The system that was supposed to both punish and help kids in trouble turned into a source of income for ex-Judges Michael Conahan and Mark Ciavarella. They were indicted on federal charges five years ago.
“The culture has changed,” says Judge Thomas Burke who was named Luzerne County President Judge a year after the scandal broke.
“There has been significant improvement all across the board in juvenile justice,” says Judge Burke, who calls Luzerne County Juvenile Court far different from what it was in 2003, when Mark Ciavarella began presiding over that court.
That year, Ciavarella ordered 330 juveniles to be incarcerated.
According to a report from the state’s Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice, Luzerne County represented less than three percent of Pennsylvania’s population.
Yet Ciavarella was responsible for 22 percent of the juvenile placements in the entire state.
In Ciavarella’s six years running juvenile court, he ordered the lockup of an average of 310 kids per year.
From 2008-2012, after Ciavarella left the bench, that number dropped to 83 juveniles per year.
“There’s been a lot more attention to training, education, and standards to identify, which individuals would appropriately be sent into placement,” says Judge Burke.
And there have been changes in state law.
“It’s unfortunate that we got in this situation,” said Governor Tom Corbett in April 2012, to a crowd in the very same courthouse where Conahan and Ciavarella committed their crimes.
On that day, the governor signed a bill that guarantees most kids in juvenile court are represented by a lawyer through their entire process.
In the Ciavarella years, more than 50 percent of kids in his court gave up their right to have a lawyer.
Most believed their crimes were so minor they’d never be locked up.
Yet hundreds were.
“Had a lawyer been with a child in most of these instances if not all of them, this scandal never would have occurred,” said Governor Corbett.
In Luzerne County, every single juvenile in the court system has been represented by a lawyer since Ciavarella left the bench, according to Judge Burke who says Luzerne County courts instituted that policy four years before it became state law.
The U.S. Attorney who supervised the prosecution of Conahan and Ciavarella praised the reforms, but added there’s another reason juvenile justice is now better in Luzerne County.
“Without being too flippant, the main thing that has happened, is that the two responsible individuals have been removed from the system and won’t be back,” said Smith.
Judge Burke says of all the changes made to make sure kids get a fair shake in the juvenile justice system, not a single one stands out.
He says the group of measures, taken as a whole, hold everyone in the system accountable.
Luzerne County’s president judge calls it “unlikely” that a repeat of Kids for Cash could happen in our area.
“The danger in any situation where there’s a lot of progress is not let complacency sit in,” said Judge Burke.
He says one of the major changes is that kids convicted of crimes are treated based on a number of factors, where they can receive counseling, drug treatment, and other help.