In its wide-ranging recommendations issued Thursday morning, the Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice suggested some basic measures to prevent the "kids for cash" scandal from recurring in Pennsylvania.
Make sure children have a lawyer.
Don't let them be taken away in shackles.
Give them expanded rights to appeal.
But in the end, what happened in Luzerne County - where some 4,500 kids were sent to detention centers for minor crimes and with limited if any counsel - was a failure of the courts and the community, the commission said in issuing its 66-page report.
"We had judges who if they weren't criminal they were incompetent, we had defense lawyers who didn't perform their functions, we had prosecutors who stood by . . . we had a community that at least at some level was aware of what was going on. This was no secret, this was well reported in the newspapers," said commission chairman John M. Cleland.
The 11-member commission, meeting at the Pennsylvania Judicial Center in Harrisburg, released a 43-point list of recommendations and an investigative report detailing a scheme in which two judges in Luzerne County were charged with receiving more than $2.8 million in payoffs from the builder and owner of two juvenile detention centers.
"The commission did a good job," said Marsha Levick, of the Juvenile Law Center, a Philadelphia children's advocacy group that has filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of the victims. "There is much in this to be grateful for."
Levick applauded most of the recommendations, including a provision to create a statewide fund to pay attorneys' fees for people who can't afford them.
"We stand almost alone as a state in providing no state dollars at all to support indigent defense; it's entirely county money," said Levick. "So Philadelphia has a terrific system. Smaller counties with less resources allocate less. It's what we call justice by geography."
The report described as "Dickensian" the role of former juvenile judge Mark A. Ciavarella, who ordered children as young as 11 to the juvenile jail for failure to pay fines, "effectively using the county detention center as a debtor's prison for children."
The recommendations to prevent another Luzerne County from happening affect everyone who touches the juvenile justice system, from judges to defendants. In 20 categories, the 66-page report suggests changes in ethics rules and judicial and attorney discipline procedures.
The commission concluded that the heart of the problem in Luzerne, where thousands of children were sent to detention centers unjustly, sits with Ciavarella and former judge Michael T. Conahan - but found "the causes of the breakdown are more far-reaching."
"We were all struck by the collapse of the rule of law, that every check and balance that we fully anticipate would come into play to make sure the system works collapsed," Cleland said.