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Luzerne County 'cash for kids' defendants finding wheels of justice spin slowly

PITTSTON, Pa. - As Jesse Miers remembers it, the judge took barely a minute to convict him of possessing a stolen pistol.

Jesse Miers, here with his 2-year-old daughter, is jobless and has yet to have his criminal record expunged. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
Jesse Miers, here with his 2-year-old daughter, is jobless and has yet to have his criminal record expunged. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)Read more

PITTSTON, Pa. - As Jesse Miers remembers it, the judge took barely a minute to convict him of possessing a stolen pistol.

Then Luzerne County Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. declared, "Remanded until further notice." And Miers, 17 and without benefit of a lawyer, was shackled, chained, and sent off to a privately owned detention center - a jail whose owner, federal prosecutors say, was giving kickbacks to the judge in return for a steady supply of prisoners.

So Miers, now 20, was relieved last year when he heard that his record would be cleared, along with those of about 4,500 other juvenile defendants trapped in Luzerne County's "cash for kids" scandal.

But while the wheels of justice spun swiftly in finding Miers guilty, they are stuck in a slow grind when it comes to finding him relief.

More than a year after state courts first ordered Ciavarella's verdicts thrown out, fewer than 10 percent of the records have been expunged. Luzerne County is hiring staff to finish the job. But even then, thanks to the mounds of paperwork and multiple agencies involved, officials say it will take another year to erase all the records.

That leaves young people who are trying to enlist in the military, obtain student loans, win teacher certification, or apply for certain jobs entangled in red tape.

Some are still too young to job-hunt - 46 defendants were younger than 13 when Ciavarella jailed them, records show. The youngest was 10.

Miers, who took out a $3,000 loan to help pay his court costs, has earned a GED and a commercial driver's license. But he can't find work - not with the gun charge.

"It's kind of hard to get a job when you have something like that on your record," he said in an interview at his fiancée's home in Pittston. "I've tried to move on as much as I possibly could, but it won't happen until my record is expunged and it's out of my life for good."

Despite enormous attention and resources committed to cleaning up the Luzerne scandal - an intense federal investigation that has so far yielded criminal charges against two dozen people, at least four civil suits representing about 500 named plaintiffs, a state commission devoted to reform, and enough legal work to employ a city of lawyers - the young people are still being punished by the past.

Prosecutors say Ciavarella and another judge, Michael T. Conahan, took $2.8 million from two men - a builder of the jails and a co-owner - in return for sending hundreds of juveniles to the centers. Both judges have been removed from the bench. Conahan is pleading guilty to a conspiracy charge. Ciavarella says he is innocent.

According to state records, between 2003 and 2008 Ciavarella sent away 1,360 juveniles - hundreds of them without lawyers. Some were jailed for crimes as petty as throwing a rock in the road or spray-painting a stop sign. A father told the state commission that his son, 13, got 48 days in jail for fighting with his mother's boyfriend and throwing a steak at him.

Last month, in a painstakingly detailed report, the commission calculated that in five years, Ciavarella's judgments accounted for more than 22 percent of all Pennsylvania juveniles placed in detention - even though Luzerne has less than 3 percent of the state's population.

The problem with the expungements is that it takes a lot of people and many steps to wipe records clean.

Michael Vecchio, director of Luzerne County probation services, said the task would take his office, with its current staffing, six years.

So Vecchio began looking for aid, and this month won a grant that enables him to hire six more people. He said he hoped that, if they got started this week, all of the Ciavarella defendants' records would be expunged within a year.

Marsha Levick, a lawyer with the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia who was instrumental in pushing for investigations of the Luzerne scandal, said some of the records are paper, some are electronic, some are in microfiche.

Vecchio said each needed to be pulled, all charges and disposition figured out, and a list made of every law enforcement agency involved.

Then officials draft an order. It goes to the district attorney for concurrence, then to the clerk of courts to be certified, then to a judge to be signed.

That judge is Arthur E. Grim, the Berks County senior judge tapped by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to investigate the cases. He was the man who read through thousands of files and determined that Ciavarella's rulings were too tainted to be trusted.

So far, Grim has tried to get the most urgent expungements expedited, but he said there must be many hardships he does not yet know about.

"It's like casting a net on the sea and hoping you catch some fish," Grim said in an interview.

In his office in Berks County, Grim examines each case. After each is reviewed, it is sent back to Luzerne's probation office, and from there goes to every agency that had contact with the juvenile.

Everything must be erased: arrest reports, fingerprints, photographs, and any record, electronic or otherwise, that mentions the name of the defendant. Even DNA evidence must be destroyed.

"The average order has easily seven, eight, or more different places it needs to be sent," Grim explained.

He is particularly concerned, he said, about young adults who have run afoul of the law anew - and are serving sentences made longer by juvenile records from Luzerne County that should have been expunged by now.

So is David Fine, a Harrisburg lawyer who said he was appalled when he realized about six months ago that some Ciavarella defendants might be serving prison terms unjustly.

Fine's firm, K&L Gates - the Gates refers to former partner William Gates Sr., father of the Microsoft Corp. founder - has offices around the world. Fine went to Grim, and then to the state Supreme Court, and offered to have his firm do mammoth pro bono work: to sift through the 4,500 defendants' names and see if any are behind bars, and if so, whether past adjudications by Ciavarella were factored into their sentences.

Like Grim, Fine said the biggest concern was defendants who may be in jail today because of the slow pace of the expungements.

"What if you shouldn't still be there? And you're away from your family? And who knows what can happen? Prisons are dangerous places," the lawyer said. "That's someone's liberty. That should keep all of us up at night."

'Like an animal'

As Jesse Miers tells it, his taste of juvenile justice, Luzerne-style, began when a family friend asked him to keep an eye on her 12-year-old.

The boy had been in trouble. Miers knew what that was like - his parents had split up when he was 10. Since age 16, he'd lived on his own.

One day, Miers said, he saw the boy toting a laptop. Suspicious, he asked where it had come from. The boy volunteered, "Look what else I have" - and pulled out a gun.

"So I took it off him and smacked him upside the head," Miers said, "and asked him, 'What's wrong with you? Where did you get it?' "

The boy said he'd stolen it - so, Miers said, he tried to track down the owners. But he had the gun on him when he arrived the next day at his job in a detail shop, and told a friend, who told the boss, who asked for the gun.

"I gave it right over to him," Miers said. "It was a huge weight off my shoulders."

But a warrant was issued for his arrest, and before he knew it, Miers was standing before Ciavarella.

He'll never forget the shackles: They put a belt around his waist, and attached his wrists to it, while a chain draped down his legs, shackles binding his ankles.

"Like an animal," he said.

But he was lucky. Miers spent one week at PA Child Care and another at Western PA Child Care, the two centers at the heart of the scandal. Many of his fellow defendants were sent away for months.

After filling out more than 100 job applications, Miers said, he has his strategy down: If there is a question about a felony conviction, he says he has to leave but will come back later.

He's getting nervous about supporting his 2-year-old daughter and her mother, Staci Becker. They've been sweethearts since seventh grade. They plan to marry.

"What am I going to do when I get cut off unemployment? A box of diapers costs $30," Miers said. "I get $140 a week to take care of my family."

'Original victims'

The scandal's injuries don't end with the defendants. There are also the "original victims" - people who were victims of juvenile crimes in the cases now being expunged. Many who were owed restitution may not be compensated.

Last week, a state House subcommittee approved a bill that would provide restitution even after the juvenile cases are dismissed and the records expunged.

Meanwhile, the state has offered counseling and therapy to juvenile defendants caught up in the scandal. But the offer has drawn few takers. The toll-free hotline rarely rings.

Kathy Wallace, one of the therapists, no longer finds this surprising. She says Luzerne County families devised a nickname for the judge: "Abracadabra Ciavarella" - because he made children disappear.

"They don't trust the system," Wallace said. "I don't blame them, after all they've been through."