Pennsylvania court overturns hundreds of juvenile sentences in judge kickback scandal

[JURIST] The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania [official website] on Thursday ordered [text, PDF] hundreds of juvenile convictions to be overturned and records to be expunged without hearing pursuant to the recommendation of a Special Master [text, PDF], in an attempt to rectify "the alleged travesty of juvenile justice" committed by two state judges involved in an alleged kickback scheme. In February, Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas [official website] President Judge Mark Ciavarella and former President Judge Michael Conahan pleaded guilty [JURIST report] to federal corruption charges [criminal information, PDF] that claimed that between June 2000 and January 2007 they accepted more than $2.6 million in kickbacks for sentencing teenagers to two private juvenile detention facilities in which they had a financial interest. Special Master Arthur Grim noted that Pennsylvania jurisprudence provides that "the appearance of [judicial] impropriety is sufficient justification for the grant of new proceedings before another judge." The state Supreme Court accepted Grim's recommendation that consent decrees and adjudications should be vacated and records should be expunged for isolated, non-serious offenses where the juveniles appearing before Ciavarella were not represented by lawyers. Grim wrote:

This prompt action in these non-serious cases will be at least one step towards righting the wrongs which were visited upon these juveniles and will help restore confidence in the justice system. Furthermore, it is not in the interest of the community to relitigate these non-serious cases, nor do I believe that the victims would be well-served by new proceedings.
Each affected juvenile offender will be given an opportunity to object to the decision, and the Supreme Court will issue future findings on other, more serious classes of affected cases. A spokesperson for the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center (JLC) [advocacy website], which filed the case, welcomed [Philadelphia Inquirer report] the court's decision.

Ciavarella and Conahan were specifically accused of honest services fraud and tax fraud. A spokesperson for the JLC said that juveniles arraigned before Ciavarella between 2003 and 2006 received excessive sentences. Both judges agreed to 87-month prison sentences for themselves, but the pleas will not be formally accepted until sentencing, which could take up to 90 days. University of Pittsburgh School of Law Professor David Harris [professional profile] criticized the plea agreement [JURIST op-ed], saying, "I don’t think seven years is nearly enough for the harm they did to the system of justice, to our collective belief in the rule of law, to these children, and to their families." Yet to be determined are the amount the judges will be ordered to pay in restitution, and whether Ciavarella wrongly incarcerated juveniles to benefit the two companies involved. These issues will be resolved [Scranton Times report] during the presentence investigation and through a possible hearing before the US District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania [official website]. The judges have also agreed to resign their positions and be disbarred. Families whose children were sentenced to the detention centers filed a lawsuit [Scranton Times report] against the judges and 14 other defendants, including the company that ran the detention facilities and two individuals who allegedly paid the judges. The judges allegedly received the payments into businesses they owned and in some cases falsely characterized the payments as rental income from a Florida condominium.

 

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