'Despicable' Former Judges Ordered to Pay Victims $206M

Pennsylvania judges received kickbacks for sending children to for-profit jails
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Aug 17, 2022 2:15 PM CDT
Corrupt Kids-for-Cash Judges Ordered to Pay Victims $206M
n this Tuesday, Sept., 15, 2009 photo, former Luzerne County Court Judges Michael Conahan, front left, and Mark Ciavarella, front right, leave the United States District Courthouse in Scranton, Pa.   (Mark Moran/The Citizens' Voice via AP)

(Newser) – Two former Pennsylvania judges who orchestrated a scheme to send children to for-profit jails in exchange for kickbacks were ordered to pay more than $200 million to hundreds of people they victimized in one of the worst judicial scandals in US history. US District Judge Christopher Conner awarded $106 million in compensatory damages and $100 million in punitive damages to nearly 300 people in a long-running civil suit against the judges, writing the plaintiffs are "the tragic human casualties of a scandal of epic proportions." From the AP:

  • The kids-for-cash scandal. In what came to be known as the kids-for-cash scandal, Mark Ciavarella and another judge, Michael Conahan, shut down a county-run juvenile detention center and accepted $2.8 million in illegal payments from the builder and co-owner of two for-profit lockups. Ciavarella, who presided over juvenile court, pushed a zero-tolerance policy that guaranteed large numbers of kids would be sent to PA Child Care and its sister facility, Western PA Child Care.

  • Kids as young as 8 were involved. Ciavarella ordered children as young as 8 to detention, many of them first-time offenders deemed delinquent for petty theft, jaywalking, truancy, smoking on school grounds, and other minor infractions. The judge often ordered youths he had found delinquent to be immediately shackled, handcuffed, and taken away without giving them a chance to put up a defense or even say goodbye to their families.
  • "Cruel and despicable." "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."
  • Convictions were thrown out. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw out some 4,000 juvenile convictions involving more than 2,300 kids after the scheme was uncovered.
  • Emotional testimony. Conner ruled after hearing often-emotional testimony last year from 282 people who appeared in Luzerne County juvenile court between 2003 and 2008—79 of whom were under 13 when Ciavarella sent them to juvenile detention—and 32 parents. "They recounted his harsh and arbitrary nature, his disdain for due process, his extraordinary abruptness, and his cavalier and boorish behavior in the courtroom," Conner wrote.

  • Victim said judge ruined his life. One unnamed child victim testified that Ciavarella had "ruined my life" and "just didn’t let me get to my future," according to Conner's ruling. Several of the childhood victims who were part of the lawsuit when it began in 2009 have since died from overdoses or suicide, Conner said.
  • A "huge victory." It’s unlikely the now-adult victims will see even a fraction of the damages award, but a lawyer for the plaintiffs said it’s a recognition of the enormity of the disgraced judges’ crimes. “It’s a huge victory," Marsha Levick, co-founder and chief counsel of the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center and a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said Wednesday. “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."
  • One judge is already out of prison. Ciavarella, 72, is serving a 28-year prison sentence in Kentucky. His projected release date is 2035. Conahan, 70, was sentenced to more than 17 years in prison but was released to home confinement in 2020—with six years left on his sentence—because of the coronavirus pandemic.
(Read more corruption stories.)

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