In America, judicial objectivity is a value held sacred. Unlike politicians, who are so often viewed with skepticism, judges are expected to be beacons of integrity.
“Kids for Cash” exposes the stranger-than-fiction truth about a judge who failed to abide by these norms. Written by Pulitzer-prize winning journalist William Ecenbarger, the story centers in on Judge Mark A. Ciaverella, a former juvenile court judge for the largest county in Pennsylvania, Luzerne County.
In 2003, Ciaverella and others helped establish PA Child Care, a private juvenile detention center in Luzerne County. Then, for years, the judge accrued thousands in kickback payments for sentencing juveniles to that facility. Not only did Ciaverella engage in extensive fraud and money laundering, he also violated the constitutional rights of his subjects in order to maximize profit by filling the centers
This was one of the biggest juvenile justice scandals in contemporary American history. In 2011, Ciaverella was convicted to 28 years in prison for his role in the $2.8 million kickback scheme.
“Kids for Cash” delivers a detailed account of the scandal - as well as window inside the mind of the judge, his fellow conspirators, and the “silent” constituents of Luzerne County, who blindly supported Ciaverella’s harsh placement policies.
“I recognized it as a really interesting and outrageous story and thought it would make a great book,” Ecenbarger said of the investigation which he originally conducted for The Philadelphia Inquirer and converted into a book over two-and-a-half years.
Ecenbarger interviewed 700 people, including 50 former juvenile defendants. “Kids for Cash” highlights the stories of many of these youths, but in particular Ecenberger pays great heed to Hillary Transue, a sarcastic fourteen-year-old who comes before Ciaverella on assault charges (you read that correctly – assault charges) for creating a satirical MySpace profile lampooning her assistant principal.
In his courtroom, Ciaverella unleashes an intimidating round of questions about a speech the judge had made at her high school regarding his policies on acting out against teachers. When Hillary is unable to regurgitate his speech, he asks, “Were you sleeping?” Before he sentences her, he tells her:
“It’s going to come back to you because … I didn’t walk into that school and I didn’t speak to that student body just to scare you, just to blow smoke, just to make you think that I would do that when I wouldn’t. I’m a man of my word. You’re gone,” Ciaverella said.
In a two-minute trial, Ciaverella sends Hillary to Female Adventure Challenge Therapy (FACT), a wilderness camp in Wind Gap, Pennsylvania. Without the chance to say goodbye to her sobbing mother, she is removed from the courtroom in handcuffs and immediately placed in a cell.
Ciaverella commonly failed to remind youths of their right to counsel. He had probation officers lure teens into signing (but not reading) documents waiving their rights to an attorney. With a policy of zero tolerance, he regularly punished minors for minor crimes. One youth charged with misdemeanor was placed on probation for showing disrespect to his grandfather.
Meanwhile, Ciavarella and another judge, Michael Conohan, were receiving payments, such as a finder’s fee of $997,000 for opening PA Child Care.
“Ciaverella didn’t just sometimes fail to protect kids’ rights, or even most of the time. He violated the law in every single case,” read the findings by Judge Arthur Grim who reviewed Ciaverella’s judicial misconduct and found it pervasive.
How deep was this well of corruption? In 2002, for example counsel was waived in 7.4 percent of Pennsylvania juvenile cases. In contrast, Luzerne County’s rate was more than seven times higher: 54.8 percent. Grim found in necessary in 2009 to expunge the records approximately 3000 individuals who had gone before Ciaverella between 2003 to 2008.
While “Kids for Cash” is devoted to uncovering the wild abuse of the bench that occurred in this discrete Northern Pennsylvania community, Evenbarger suggests various elements of this scandal occur throughout the American justice system on a subtler but still powerful scale.
Although serious crimes like murder and rape represent only 5 percent of juvenile arrests, Americans have a deep-seated fear of juvenile crime. As a result, the cops are called in to control delinquency; they deliver youth to the criminal justice system at a very high cost to all, according to Ecenbarger.
“The school-to-prison pipeline is a relatively recent phenomenon of students being arrested for what used to be considered normal adolescent misbehavior and being dealt with by school authorities without police involvement. The approach has led to absurdities nationwide,” Ecenbarger wrote.
These placement practices have weighty repercussions. Several of the juveniles Ecenbarger features in the book sent to PA Child Care go on to become adult criminals. Others, like Hillary, “suffer long-term psychological damage, truncated educations and careers, and develop deep disdain for a juvenile justice system that failed them.”
Ecenbarger questions the practice of juvenile incarceration.
“Unless you absolutely have to go, when you take kids from their family and home they’re more likely to be seen as an adult criminals. You need to work with the idea, [placement] should be the last resort instead of standard policy.”
While the U.S. prides itself on the rule of law, Ecenbarger insinuates that the fear of crime and disdain for lawbreakers is actually fostering a climate where corruption thrives.
KIDS FOR CASH: Two Judges, Thousands of Children, and a 2.8 Million Kickback Scheme by William Ecenbarger | New Press | 288 p.