The “Kids for Cash” case currently unfolding against Luzerne County Judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan is one of the most appalling and disgusting cases of judicial corruption to come to light in my memory (assuming, of course, that all the allegations are true).  

The case alleges participation in a scheme in which the two judges received millions of dollars in kickbacks in exchange for sentencing juveniles to a private facility.  What makes the case more horrific is the fact that many of the sentenced juveniles had committed minor crimes, were first time offenders, were granted hearings that lasted mere minutes, and about half of whom had waived their right to counsel (granted to juveniles by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967).  

In addition to violating their 5th and 14th Amendment rights to due process and their 6th Amendment right to fair trial, one cannot underestimate the potential long-term damage done to these youth.  How can these young people have any faith in our justice system?  And what will happen to those who come out of the facility branded by their neighbors, educators, and potential employers as serious troublemakers?   

This case also raises questions about how juvenile criminal cases are handled overall – especially in the all but 3 states that don’t require juveniles to have counsel when they appear before judges and in a system where most hearings are closed to the public, ostensibly to protect the privacy of the accused, but with the potential to allow situations like that in this Pennsylvania courtroom to remain hidden.

Thankfully, the youth sentenced by Judge Ciavarella may yet see the wheels of justice turn.  Despite Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan’s violation of their plea agreement, which would have given them a much lighter sentence than provided for under the federal sentencing guidelines, and their subsequent withdrawal of their plea agreements – the two will now go to trial where they face years in prison for their alleged crimes.  

In addition, the state Supreme Court has overturned hundreds of juvenile convictions for those youth who had appeared without counsel on constitutional grounds, with additional reviews anticipated.    
One of the most poignant statements I’ve read thus far was a reply to a quote from Ciavarella’s attorney, who said - “Under the law, right now, he is not convicted of any crime…[h]e is entitled to the constitutional presumption of innocence. I would hope and expect that all people, including members of the public, respect the constitutional rights to which he’s entitled.”
In response, Marsha Levick, who represents youths in a lawsuit against the judges, replied, “I think it’s very nice that they exercised their right to withdraw their plea, and that they have counsel, and that they will proceed to trial, and I note, in passing, that such rights were denied to children in Luzerne County”.