It started in 2007 when a distraught parent called the Juvenile Law Center, panicked over her child’s shockingly harsh sentence.
Eight years and countless court dates later, the bribery scandal dubbed “Kids for Cash” by the media seems to finally be over with the conviction of two judges and two prominent businessmen, and fines and damages of over $20 million. What happened in between was one of the biggest scandals in the American justice system, a scandal that renewed the debate about privately owned detention centers and shone a harsh light on the dangers of making prisons for profit.
Robert Mericle, a well known Pennsylvania real estate developer, and Robert Powell, attorney and co-owner of two privately run juvenile detention centers in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, were convicted of giving more than $2 million in payoffs to juvenile court Justice, Mark Ciavarella and Judge Michael Conahan, for their cooperation in building two for-profit juvenile detention centers and ensuring that they stayed full.
What the Judges Did.
Ciavarella and Conahan used their position as judges to:
- Lobby in favor of closing an outdated state-run facility and
- Push contracts with Powell’s company, P.A. Child Care, LLC, and Mericle’s construction company to build a private facility which the county would then lease.
- Forge documents to help Mericle obtain financing and arranged government contracts.
- Obtained contracts to help Mericle and Powell build a second facility as West PA Child Care.
In exchange, they received kickbacks which were paid using Powell as an intermediary so that Mericle wouldn’t have any contact with the court and the judges.
Ciavarella and Conahan decided that corruption wasn’t enough and started blatantly extorting money from Powell, using various companies and complex transactions to launder the blackmail payments. Powell testified that the two men told him, “You are making a lot of money and you’re going to give us some.” The judges forced Powell to pay “rent” on a property they owned in Florida and used a series of shell corporations to launder it.
Once the facilities were built, Conahan appointed Ciavarella to a position as a juvenile judge so that he could keep the facilities’ beds full.
This is how private prisons work: The state contracts with the facility for a price, and then the state pays a monthly fee for each prisoner housed by the facility. More prisoners = more revenue.
Ciavarella knew how many prisoners were in each of the facilities and endeavored to keep them at maximum capacity. Court records show that children were denied their right to counsel, given maximum sentencing under an inflated “zero tolerance” policy, and Ciavarella either ignored the recommendations of probation officers or pressured them into recommending detention instead of release. He sentenced children to serve their time at the private facilities whenever there was an opening.
They were able to continue this fraud for five years despite complaints by juveniles and their families that sentences were too harsh and children were spending too much time in correction facilities.
In 2007, the Juvenile Law Center, a non profit watchdog group, was alerted to the problem by a concerned parent. It was the Juvenile Law Center who pushed authorities to investigate, and what they found was shocking. Ciavarella had tried more than 6000 cases, involving more than 2500 children. Over half had not had legal representation, and over 60% had been taken from their homes. Eventually, they uncovered the whole scheme of racketeering, bribery, and money laundering as well.
Robert Powell, who was tired of paying seemingly endless bribes, was alerted that he was being investigated. He approached the police and agreed to aid in the investigation in exchange for consideration in sentencing.
He wore a wire during his conversations with Ciavarella and Conahan and produced evidence, tying the men to large payments. He assisted investigators in gathering a good portion of the evidence that eventually convicted the two judges.
Both judges were charged in early 2009 with Federal crimes that ranged from accepting bribes to racketeering and were prosecuted under the RICO laws. In 2009, both sides agreed to a plea deal, but the two judges continued to insist that they were innocent. The judge vacated the plea deal, and the two were tried separately.
Conahan chose to plead guilty and apologize to his victims and the justice system and was sentenced to 17.5 years in Federal prison and almost a million dollars in fines. Conahan declined to appeal and began his sentence in 2011.
Ciavarella, on the other hand was defiant through the entire process, insisting that he broke no laws and that the payments were not bribes. Ciavarella was found guilty and sentenced to 28 years in prison. He took his appeal all the way to the Supreme Court, but Certiorari- review by a higher court- was denied. He is currently serving his sentence and several civil suits are pending against him and Conahan.
Powell and Mericle were charged with failing to report a felony and accessory to conspiracy. Mericle was sentenced to one year in Federal prison and Powell was sentenced to 18 months. Both paid fines and restitution, and Robert Mericle donated over $2 million to a fund that benefits local children’s health. In addition, a Federal class action law suit against Mericle settled for $17.5 million and a separate class action suit against Powell settled for $4.75 million. Powell is also being sued by his former business partner for embezzling from the company to pay bribes to the judges.
In addition to the four men, 30 more people, most of them government officials were charged by Federal Prosecutors in a corruption probe.
The state of Pennsylvania has instituted procedures and policy changes aimed at avoiding anything of this sort in the future. All of the juvenile cases Ciavarella adjudicated between 2003 and 2008 were vacated and the records of the offenders were expunged.
Thankfully, this scheme was exposed and the Luzerne County judicial system is a better place as a result. However, as long as there are big profits to be made for keeping people incarcerated, we can be sure this will not be the last time it happens. Expunged records and cash settlements do not bring back months of your life, nor do they erase the humiliation and degradation of incarceration. People’s value should not be based on whether they can be used as a revenue stream and neither should the justice system. Those are the things that should never be for sale. It mortgages our trust and it mortgages our future.
Juvenile law center: luzerne
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