For the past seven months, I have devoted my writing to the political arena. This is a volatile area under normal circumstances but with the advent of health care reform; the debates have become more heated and frustrating. Liberals and conservatives have both established their positions on the topic and unwavering would be an accurate description of these positions. The problems lie with the distortion of the intent of the bill by the conservatives and the ever-changing promises being made by President Obama. Sarah Palin’s allegation of the existence of “death panels” and Obama’s willingness to deal with the special interest groups he promised to avoid has fueled an already blazing fire.
My original objective when I began blogging was to be somewhat of an advocate for the need of reform in the Juvenile Justice system. Looking through the nearly 50 articles I have written; I became aware that only one of them dealt with the system and its need for reform. The present political landscape coupled with my detraction from my original goal has induced me to redirect my focus. A blatant case of exploitation and corruption was brought to my attention by a fellow blogger and friend. This story, which continues to unfold, has certainly caught my attention and will be the topic of this article.
Two judges in Pennsylvania have pleaded guilty to a litany of charges leveled against them in U.S. Federal Court. These are the result of an investigation prompted by Bob Schwartz, president of the Juvenile Law Center. For those interested in reading more on the investigation; visit www.democracynow.org/2009/2/17/penn_judges_plead_guilty_to_taking. The sordid details of the investigation were reported to the public by Amy Goodman of DEMOCRACY NOW. According to Goodman; Schwartz chose to begin the investigation after receiving a number of complaints regarding the excessive sentencing practices of judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan.
Schwartz’s investigation led him to cases dating back to 2003. The two judges have “pleaded guilty to taking bribes for placing youths in privately owned jails.” It is estimated that the two received a staggering $2.6 million. Along with the bribery charges; they are also charged with wire fraud and income tax fraud (tough to declare bribery revenue). What I find equally, if not more detestable is the allegation that both Ciavarella and Conahan were complicit in facilitating the construction of these detention centers.
During my research, I found an article by John Schwartz of the New York Times on a web site aptly called: PEOPLE YOU’LL SEE IN HELL. http://psyich.com/2009/03/26/update-judge-mark-a-ciavarella-and-judge-michael-t-conahan. In the article, Schwartz details the ease in which these sentencing practices were allowed to go unnoticed. By doing so; he touches on some of the flaws inherent to the entire system: Flaws that I will be addressing in a future article. Due to the seriousness and magnitude of this injustice; the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania assigned a Special Master, Senior Judge Arthur E. Grimm, to the case.
"The special master had submitted an 11-page report that there was routine deprivation of children's constitutional rights."
Due to Judge Grimm’s findings, hundreds of juvenile records were ordered expunged by the Supreme Court.
Goodman of DEMOCRCY NOW had the opportunity to interview two of the juveniles sentenced by the judges. Jamie Quinn, a first time offender and 14 years old at the time, was charged with simple assault and harassment. This incident revolved around an argument Ms. Quinn had with a friend that resulted in a “slap.” Despite the fact that no injuries were reported; Jamie was ordered to serve a 4 month sentence at PA Child Care; one of the privately owned detention centers Ciavarella and Conahan received bribes from and assisted in their securing funds to be constructed.
The other victim of this travesty that was interviewed was Kurt Kruger, another first time offender. Kruger was deemed to be a “lookout” for his girlfriend who was shoplifting. According to reports; Kruger had moved out of his home due to problems between Kurt and his father. Because of this, he never received notification that the court had chosen to go forward with the charges. He believed they had decided to ignore this frivolous charge because his girlfriend (the one who actually shoplifted) was never summoned to appear. When Kruger missed his scheduled hearing; an arrest warrant was issued. After his arrest, without the benefit of counsel, he was sentenced to by Ciavarella in a 90 second hearing!
Perhaps the most troubling case (not to minimize the others) involved 15 year old Hillary Transoe. Hillary was charged with harassment for posting a parody of her high school Vice President on her MySpace page. She was sentenced to 3 months in one of the detention centers. Three months for a parody?? Wow-considering some of the things I pulled in high school; Ciavarella or Conahan might have sentenced me to life! These are just a few examples of the injustices perpetrated by these judges between 2003 and 2008. An increasingly large number of civil suits have been filed as a result of these discoveries.
As I mentioned previously; there are a number of constitutional rights that are habitually ignored in our Juvenile Justice system. Given the fact that hundreds of records have been expunged due to the revelations brought to light by this investigation; it is only natural to question how many lives have been irrevocably damaged. As a condition of their guilty plea, Ciavarella and Conahan have agreed to an 87 month sentence in a federal prison. I’m sorry; that’s not good enough for me. I would like to see them spend 87 months for every life they ruined because of their pathological greed.
One of the things I plan to address in a future article will be the change in focus of the juvenile judicial system. The long accepted approach of counseling and rehabilitation has been replaced by a more punitive guideline. While health care reform is dominating the attention of our legislators and society; juvenile justice reform has been all but ignored for decades. Bringing this to the attention of as many people as possible is my new objective. I can only hope that people are more receptive to new ideas and possible solutions to juvenile justice than they have been to health care reform.