WILKES-BARRE - In October 2005, a 16-year-old boy appeared in Luzerne County Court to answer charges that he had shot out several windows in a city home with a BB gun. The boy had never been in trouble with police before, and even the homeowner asked the judge to be lenient, according to a federal lawsuit.
Nevertheless, Judge Mark A. Ciavarella, after repeatedly silencing the boy's court-appointed attorney, ignored the homeowner's request and in a matter of minutes banged his gavel and said, "Adjudicated delinquent!"
The boy was handcuffed, shackled, and taken in a van about 50 miles to a juvenile "boot camp" for the next three months, the complaint states.
The boy's brief hearing in dark-paneled Courtroom 4 was closed to the public, but it was witnessed by an assistant district attorney, the public defender, other lawyers, probation officials, bailiffs, clerks, and other court staff, according to the suit, filed by the Juvenile Law Center of Philadelphia.
Now the monumental task facing a special 11-member commission investigating what one advocacy group called "one of the largest and most serious violations of children's rights in the history of the American legal system" is to determine how something like that could happen, how it can be prevented - and why no one spoke up.
State Superior Court Judge John M. Cleland, chairman of the Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice, said the goal is to identify "those who knew but failed to speak" and "those who saw but failed to act."
While it cannot indict or prosecute, the commission is empowered to investigate and recommend legislation, rules, and other procedural changes.
Ciavarella is accused of taking bribes from private prison operators for every child he sent to two private juvenile detention centers. Also accused is fellow Luzerne County Judge Michael T. Conahan, who secured lucrative contracts for the private jails, which were paid by the state according to their number of inmates.
Last month, Conahan and Ciavarella pleaded not guilty to federal racketeering charges. They had agreed to plead guilty in February to lesser charges that called for 87-month prison sentences, far below federal guidelines.
But a federal judge rejected the deal and said the two judges had not fully accepted responsibility. They switched their pleas to not guilty, and prosecutors secured a 48-count indictment that includes racketeering, bribery, and extortion charges.
Ciavarella presided over juvenile court in Luzerne County between 2003 and 2007. According to the Juvenile Law Center, children were summarily dispatched to incarceration after the briefest of hearings, often without legal representation.
Parents who had accompanied their children to court and expected to return home with them instead left, stunned and bewildered, without them.
The Juvenile Law Center alleges that something clearly was unusual about Ciavarella's courtroom. To wit:
A 15-year-old boy was sent away for three months for pushing a classmate into a locker. A 15-year-old girl was jailed for shoplifting a $4 jar of nutmeg. A 13-year-old girl went before Ciavarella for fighting on a school bus. The judge asked why she had done it. Rather than answer, the girl started crying. The lawsuit states that Ciavarella sent her away for three months for not answering his questions.
Records and interviews paint a picture of a kangaroo court. Yet no one involved, directly or indirectly, spoke up. Lawyers, elected officials, police, school administrators, teachers, probation officers, prosecutors, and civil servants charged with protecting children all remained silent.
Ciavarella guaranteed that the jails were filled with a steady stream of juvenile offenders. The prosecutors say the two judges received kickbacks totaling $2.6 million from the former owner of two detention facilities and their developer.
There were bright red flags all over the city well before the judges were charged in January. The Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader published articles in 2004 raising serious and disturbing concerns about juvenile cases. Robert Schwartz, the Juvenile Law Center's executive director, said in an interview that detention-center workers had been told in advance - before the hearings in Ciavarella's courtroom - how many new child inmates to expect at the end of each day.
For the commission, which has the power to subpoena witnesses, there is no shortage of places to look.
The other judges. Judge Chester B. Muroski, who succeeded Ciavarella as president judge this year, said he and his colleagues on the bench had been completely shielded from the proceedings in juvenile court, first by Conahan and later by Ciavarella when they served as president judge. He said the court seldom met as a unit to discuss court matters. In 2006, when he began to suspect kickbacks, he contacted the FBI.
The court staff. Muroski said Conahan and Ciavarella had packed the courthouse with relatives. Conahan's cousin was the court administrator, a brother-in-law was jury management supervisor, and another brother-in-law was paid $1.1 million in public funds for court-ordered psychological evaluations.
According to Muroski, other court-related workers knew they were "there at Conahan's pleasure."
"When I bucked them in 2005, they reassigned me," he added. "That was a message to everyone: Keep your mouth shut."
According to the Juvenile Law Center, Ciavarella routinely pressured probation officers to recommend detention even when it was not appropriate. Often probation officers advised juvenile defendants to appear before Ciavarella without legal counsel. Sometimes, the center said, he pressured them to change their more lenient recommendations to detention.
The center cited the case of a 14-year-old boy arrested for stealing loose change from unlocked cars. Police told his mother that he would receive probation because it was a minor offense. Just before entering Ciavarella's courtroom, his mother was asked to sign a waiver of counsel. She said she wanted her son to have a lawyer, but could not afford to pay one. He appeared before Ciavarella without counsel - and after a three-minute hearing was sent to a detention center for a year.
The county commissioners. To further the kickback scheme, the center said, Conahan shut down Luzerne County's juvenile detention facility in 2002, contending it was unsafe. Then he persuaded the county commissioners to enter a 20-year, $58 million agreement with PA Child Care L.L.C. to lease the new private facility. Soon Ciavarella was filling the prison beds with delinquents, allegedly in exchange for kickbacks.
"Conahan had no power to close the center like that," said Ronald P. Williams, a member of the interbranch commission and a former commissioner in nearby Wyoming County. "Why did the commissioners allow him to get away with it?"
The schools. Ciavarella's "zero tolerance" policy was warmly embraced by school administrators, teachers unions, and many teachers, Muroski and Williams said. "Everybody loved him," said Muroski. "He was putting bad kids away. That's how it was perceived."
Indeed, even six months after the scandal became public, two administrators at the Wilkes-Barre Area Vocational Technical School wrote a letter to the editor of the Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader praising Ciavarella. "His dedication to working with our students created a bond of trust and confidence among him, the students and the staff," the administrators wrote.
The state court system. The Pennsylvania Judicial Conduct Board, which is charged with investigating and prosecuting complaints of wrongdoing by judges, received an anonymous complaint about Conahan in 2006. However, the board has strict confidentiality rules, and it has refused to say whether it followed up on these allegations. The interbranch commission had hoped to hear testimony from the board at its first hearing two weeks ago, but the appearance by a board representative was canceled pending resolution of the confidentiality issue.
Ciavarella's tough stance with juveniles had widespread public support. In 2006, the Wilkes-Barre Friendly Sons of St. Patrick named Ciavarella its man of the year.
This prompted U.S. Rep. Paul E. Kanjorski (D., Pa.) to read a congratulation into the Congressional Record.
The commission, which must complete its work by May 31, plans to hold two days of hearings in Wilkes-Barre next month. Among the scheduled witnesses is Judge Arthur E. Grim, a special master appointed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to review about 6,000 juvenile cases handled by Ciavarella.