This is a story I read in my local paper, the San Diego Union Tribune, and still can’t believe it’s true. In Luzerne County, Pennsylvania two federal judges, Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. and Michael T. Conahan, have plead guilty to accepting money to send juveniles to a privately owned (for profit) juvenile detention center.
You can read the timeline here and you should. Basically they were paid by the operators of the facility to sentence juvenile offenders to long sentences, disproportionate to their offenses.
Perhaps the best synopsis is an editorial from the local newspaper, the Citizen’s Voice:
Luzerne County’s top judges have hurt, betrayed and shamed all of Luzerne County.
For the last six years, Michael T. Conahan and then Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. served as president judges, at the very top of the Luzerne County judiciary.
Instead of assuring the justice we expect when we appear in county court, the two men, through a variety of complex schemes, severely violated the public trust as they secretly raked in $2.6 million for themselves, according to federal prosecutors.
Federal officials say the two defrauded taxpayers, in part by arranging for county money to build a juvenile center from which they would secretly profit. They assured the center would have plenty of paying customers by tearing juveniles from their families and sending them to the facility, at times against the advice of probation officers.
The judges covered up their schemes, filing false documents and lying about their income to the state and to the Internal Revenue Service, federal officials say.
Conahan and Ciavarella entered a plea agreement Friday to two counts each of fraud and agreed to 87-month federal prison terms, disbarment and restitution.
County residents, although angered and disgusted with the news, were not all that surprised. The indictments Monday confirmed the very worst of their fears.
Rumors and speculation about corruption within the county courthouse have been circulating for more than a year, and many area residents say these charges of fraud, even against judges, are not so surprising for Luzerne County.
Still, Judge Chester Muroski, in comments Monday morning, offered hope for an immediate new beginning to the county’s judicial system.
The remaining county judges will “do everything we need to restore pubic confidence in the court,” said Muroski. Fairness and justice without outside influences would be top priorities, he promised.
The courthouse probe will continue and federal officials ask the public for help with information that may aid their investigation.
We urge the remaining county judges and all who will take the bench in the future to remember Conahan’s and Ciavarella’s shameful examples.
Remember, too, they must earn the trust we so badly need from our judges.
The next question, of course, is how we do restitution to those children who were improperly incarcerated. I pray for their healing.