WILKES-BARRE - There's the 16-year-old boy charged with driving without a license and presenting false identification to police in 2007. He was jailed for eight months, and during that time the court garnisheed a $598 Social Security survivor's check he had been receiving since his father's death.
There's the 14-year-old boy who stole loose change from unlocked cars and was sent away in 2007 for a year; when he was released, he was so anxious and depressed he had to drop out of school and now receives homebound instruction.
There's the 14-year-old girl who was jailed for more than a year in 2005 for punching another girl in school; she was emotionally distraught by the incarceration and today has permanent scars from self-mutilation.
They are among the victims cited in a class-action suit by the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center against two former Luzerne County judges who, federal prosecutors say, conspired to send thousands of teenagers off to detention after denying them basic constitutional rights.
As a result of their incarcerations, the JLC says, many of the teenagers suffered emotional damage, were unable to attend school, lost scholarships, were refused military enlistment, or attempted suicide. In addition, they and their parents were forced to pay probation fees and evaluation costs and had their wages garnisheed by the court. Some still owe the court money.
Former Judges Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. and Michael T. Conahan are awaiting trial on 48 charges of racketeering, fraud, and bribery in connection with an alleged $2.8 million "kids-for-cash" kickback scheme, but they are also the lead defendants in four civil cases brought by the JLC and three private attorneys on behalf of the youths who were sentenced.
The suits ask that the youths, whose convictions have been invalidated as "a travesty of justice" by the state Supreme Court, be repaid for actual financial losses and awarded compensation for emotional suffering at the hands of the two judges and others involved in the scheme.
The teenagers routinely appeared before Ciavarella without lawyers for hearings that lasted just a few minutes. After being found delinquent, the youths were often shackled and taken to two private detention centers - PA Child Care in Luzerne County and Western PA Child Care in Butler County. Federal authorities say that in exchange for keeping their facilities full, the owners of these two facilities paid bribes to the judges.
On Nov. 20, a federal judge ruled that Ciavarella and Conahan cannot be held liable for actions in their own courtrooms under the 17th-century doctrine of judicial immunity, which is designed to give judges freedom to rule without fear of legal retribution. But U.S. District Judge A. Richard Caputo left the door open to liability for actions outside the courtroom.
For example, the keys to the success of the judges' alleged plot were Conahan's order that closed an existing county-owned juvenile center and the signing of a secret agreement guaranteeing that Ciavarella would send the child-defendants to the new private centers.
Another example of out-of-courtroom activity cited by the JLC is that Ciavarella regularly pressured probation officials to recommend detention over probation to guarantee that the two centers operated at capacity.
The four civil suits comprise a litany of burdensome financial penalties, dashed hopes, and perhaps irreversible lifetime damages.
Ciavarella sent away a 16-year-old boy for 81/2 months on a charge of operating a dirt bike while intoxicated. His parents were required to pay $5,925 in court costs, plus funds were deducted from his father's disability check and his mother's wages.
A 16-year-old girl charged with aggravated assault was told by probation officials that having an attorney would "make matters worse." She was sentenced to the PA Child Care facility for 90 days, suffered acute separation anxiety, and attempted suicide immediately after her arrival.
In 2003, the mother of a 13-year-old boy who was misbehaving at home called police "to scare him." But the boy was arrested against his mother's wishes and, after a two-minute hearing before Ciavarella, was taken away in shackles to a detention center for three months. His mother was assessed several court costs plus $480 a month that was garnisheed from her wages.
She was forced to take money from her retirement plan, incurring taxes and penalties for early withdrawal. Her son was forced to repeat the ninth grade because he had missed too much school time.
In his ruling Nov. 20, Caputo held that county officials - commissioners, the District Attorney's Office, the Probation Department, and the Public Defender's Office - were not liable in the civil action.
But kept in the crosshairs of the plaintiffs' action was Dr. Frank Vita, Conahan's brother-in-law, who was paid $1.1 million in public funds between 2001 and 2007 for court-ordered psychological evaluations. Also remaining in the complaints were two of the judges' alleged coconspirators - a local developer and a local attorney.
Caputo's decision involves only the civil action and has no bearing on criminal allegations against the two judges.