HARRISBURG - In a harsh and devastating report, a commission set up to investigate the "kids for cash" scandal in Luzerne County issued far-reaching recommendations Thursday aimed at overhauling the state's juvenile justice system.
More than half of its 66-page report recounts how the scandal unfolded, drawing on testimony and court transcripts to show the suffering of thousands of young victims and their families.
"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," commission chairman John M. Cleland said at a news conference Thursday.
The 11-member commission was created as a result of a federal corruption probe that led to charges against two Luzerne County judges accused of receiving more than $2.8 million in payoffs from the operators of two juvenile detention centers.
The report by the Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice outlines 43 recommendations aimed at restoring public confidence and preventing a similar scandal in the future. They include:
Ensuring juveniles have access to defense counsel.
Improving oversight of judges and the accountability of the state Judicial Conduct Board.
Imposing mandatory ethics training for county and appellate judges.
Ending or reducing the use of shackles on juveniles.
The recommendations would affect everyone who touches the juvenile justice system, from judges to defendants.
Gov. Rendell and Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille said they had not yet reviewed the report and could not comment.
House Majority Leader Todd Eachus, a Democrat from Luzerne County, said he would propose legislation to address some of the recommendations, specifically the one related to the lack of access by juveniles to counsel.
"No one in Pennsylvania should be denied legal representation, least of all children, and we need to do everything possible to ensure juvenile defendants are truly provided the same rights to legal counsel as anyone else in this country," said Eachus in a statement.
The report described as "Dickensian" the role of former judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr., who ordered children as young as 11 to jail for failure to pay fines, "effectively using the county detention center as a debtor's prison for children."
More than half the juveniles who appeared in Ciavarella's courtroom between 2003 and 2008 did so without counsel, the report said. Witnesses told the commission that Ciavarella had pressured defendants into waiving their right to counsel and even had a table set up outside his courtroom with waiver forms to sign.
The report concluded that many defense attorneys who had appeared before Ciavarella "clearly abdicated their responsibilities" to defend their clients and "protect their due process rights."
The results have continued to haunt not only the victims but also the people of Luzerne County.
"Do you think I like going across the state and having people say Luzerne County and laughing at us and thinking that we're all rotten people and that we just stood by while this happened?" said Jacqueline Musto Carroll, the Luzerne County district attorney.
Ciavarella and another former Luzerne County judge, Michael T. Conahan, pleaded guilty to corruption charges, but a federal judge threw out their plea agreements, saying the men had not accepted responsibility for their actions. Conahan pleaded guilty to one count of racketeering conspiracy last month.
The state Supreme Court directed in October that 4,000 juvenile cases be vacated after a comprehensive review by a special master it had appointed.
"The commission did a good job," said Marsha Levick of the Juvenile Law Center, a Philadelphia children's advocacy group that has filed a 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," Levick said. "So Philadelphia has a terrific system. Smaller counties with less resources allocate less. It's what we call justice by geography."
The commission concluded that Ciavarella and Conahan were the heart of the problem in Luzerne County - but found "the causes of the breakdown are more far-reaching" and included prosecutors, probation officers, and disciplinary boards.
Among the groups singled out for "its failings" was the Judicial Conduct Board, a constitutionally created body charged with safeguarding "the integrity of and public confidence in the judicial process," which failed to act on a lengthy complaint about Ciavarella in 2006.
The commission said the board "lacks sufficient oversight" and recommended that it review its operating procedures and that down the road a panel examine how to achieve better oversight and accountability.
The Judicial Conduct Board staff - and a member, Philadelphia lawyer Mark Aronchick - declined to comment and referred calls to the board's attorney, Paul Titus, who was out of the office and unavailable.
The commission voted against one recommendation advocated by a number of individuals and groups: opening juvenile proceedings to the public to ensure transparency in the courtroom.
Cleland said that certain juvenile proceedings such as felonies may be open, but that closing others protected the privacy of a child who may commit a "stupid" act at a young age to ensure that it doesn't haunt the juvenile later in life, for instance, on the Internet.
Cleland said the commission, made up of lawyers, judges, and prosecutors, had examined the state's juvenile justice system beyond Luzerne County and found no systemic problems statewide.
"We have, generally speaking, a very good juvenile justice system in Pennsylvania," said Cleland. "But it's not as good as it ought to be."
He added that he hoped the report would spur the courts, the legislature, the Governor's Office, and professional groups to address the issues revealed by the scandal.
"I hope there is momentum that will move this process forward and that the report will not gather dust," said Cleland. "I hope it motivates action."
To read the commission's report, go to http://go.philly.com/interbranchEndText