While the focus of the upstate Pennsylvania cash-for-kids scandal rightly has been on two rogue judges, a legislative oversight panel last week began a review that should make other stakeholders in juvenile-justice and political circles squirm.
The former Luzerne County judges, Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. and Michael T. Conahan, initially agreed to plead guilty, but a judge rejected the deal. They are now fighting a 48-count federal indictment for taking $2.6 million in bribes.
In return for those payments from the operators of two private prisons, the judges allegedly engaged in misconduct that hearkens back to grim Dickensian times: They packed off hundreds of kids to jail, often after perfunctory hearings at which teens were advised they didn't need a lawyer.
In the tradition of public corruption going back to Tammany Hall, the former judges could be said to have seen their opportunities, and so they "took 'em."
But what about other key players in the county and statewide who turned a blind eye, ignored red flags, or found themselves powerless to object?
That's the most important line of inquiry for the Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice, an 11-member panel formed by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, Gov. Rendell, and state lawmakers.
Federal prosecutors no doubt will want to track the commission's inquiry, as well, for any evidence of other wrongdoing.
Headed by Judge John M. Cleland of the state Superior Court, the panel's charge is to recommend legislative and judicial reforms. As Rendell said, its daunting mission is "finding answers, restoring confidence in our juvenile-justice system, and making sure this never happens again."
Hundreds of children caught up in the scandal have gotten a measure of justice from the Supreme Court, which overturned convictions on constitutional grounds. Hundreds more cases probably should be tossed. A class-action lawsuit by the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, which brought the case to light, is yet another route to right the wrongs.
But confidence in the juvenile- justice system won't be restored without systemic reforms that assure more oversight and fairness in these courts. That has to be a top priority for the state's high court, since it was slow to act when the alarm was first raised.
Last week, the Cleland commission also heard damning testimony from Luzerne County President Judge Chester B. Muroski about the local legal, political, and civic climate that enabled Ciavarella and Conahan to allegedly abuse their court powers to carry out the scheme.
Among his most troubling disclosures was that there was widespread community support for the judges' supposed get-tough stance - showing the dangers of zero-tolerance attitudes.
Muroski also said county officials didn't object when kids were redirected to the private jails. Prosecutors, defense attorneys, and probation officers didn't speak up enough when juveniles received bad legal advice. Ciavarella apparently wasn't reported by colleagues for what many regarded as assembly-line hearings. And Muroski contended nepotism provided a "protective shield" when a Conahan relative was paid to do psychological reviews backing detentions.
The panel, lawmakers, and courts could look to national models to build in safeguards in juvenile cases, such as Oregon's program that bars detention for juveniles arrested for first-time, minor offenses. At a minimum, the courts must review oversight of president judges, who wield considerable authority.