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Editorial: Juvenile Justice

What they deserve

Outside the federal courthouse in Scranton, two veteran judges received the angry reception they justly deserved after pleading guilty to corruption charges.

The bystanders who screamed at former Luzerne County President Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr., 58, and his predecessor, Senior Judge Michael T. Conahan, 56, last week gave voice to the thoughts of many community and legal observers.

After all, these judges stand accused of sending children to jail in return for kickbacks that totaled $2.6 million over seven years from two for-profit detention centers. Prosecutors say the pair also helped the detention centers land contracts worth $58 million, buried a critical audit, and even shut down a competing center run by the county.

For hundreds of juveniles, justice was denied when - upon advice from the bench - they waived their right to an attorney. That made it easy for Ciavarella to pack the kids off to a detention center, even when juvenile probation officers recommended against it, the feds say.

The judges have been bounced from the bench and will be formally sentenced to jail soon. Next, they should be disbarred and stripped of their state pensions.

A class-action lawsuit filed Friday against the judges provides yet another forum to answer for their conduct. Yet there's still a long way to go in making amends to hundreds of children who were railroaded by Luzerne County's juvenile court.

In legal papers filed last week, the state Supreme Court made a good start by launching an in-depth probe of the injustices perpetrated by the two county judges. First and foremost, the high court's special master, Berks County Senior Judge Arthur E. Grim, will have to determine - and quickly - whether any juvenile remains unfairly jailed due to the judges' conniving.

The review by Grim comes at the urging of the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, an advocacy group that blew the whistle on kids' mistreatment. While the Supreme Court stumbled at first by taking a pass on the issue, it is reassuring that the court has assumed jurisdiction now over the Luzerne County juvenile-justice system. Better late than never, the court's unsigned order sends the right message by describing the corruption allegations as a "travesty of juvenile justice."

A major contribution from the special master would be his recommendation of systemic reforms to prevent another rogue judge from railroading juvenile defendants in any of the state courts.

The detention center operators at the center of this scandal portray themselves as victims of the judges' scam and have not been charged. A state audit that found the facilities charged high fees to the county and state does indicate a need for better oversight of the use of private jails.

Never again should corruption in the courts be allowed to victimize and make pawns of children.