It began with a distraught mother’s phone call to the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia.
Laurene Transue reported that her 15-year-old daughter, Hillary, had been sentenced to a juvenile-detention facility. The girl’s offense was minor — poking fun at her school’s vice principal on a MySpace page.
The teen had never been in trouble before. For her “crime,” however, a juvenile court judge in Luzerne County sent her away for 90 days to a wilderness camp with other youthful offenders. She didn’t even get to say good-bye to her mother, who collapsed in the courtroom as the girl was led away in handcuffs.
Several aspects of the case troubled attorneys Marsha Levick and Lourdes Rosado of the Juvenile Law Center, a nonprofit public-interest law firm for children. Officials in Luzerne County had discouraged Laurene Transue and her daughter from bringing a lawyer to court. The judge hadn’t explained to Hillary what might happen if she pleaded guilty.
And the judge’s name was Mark A. Ciavarella.
“Our ears perked up,” Levick said. The attorneys had worked on a similar case involving the same judge years earlier.
That phone call from an angry mother launched Levick, Rosado and their colleagues at JLC on a three-year mission to correct similar injustices against thousands of juveniles who were denied their legal rights in Luzerne County’s court system.
In addition to freeing some children such as Hillary from detention, their work resulted in an unprecedented state Supreme Court order in October expunging the records of 6,500 juveniles who had been convicted over a five-year period. The court cited a “travesty of justice.”
Meanwhile, federal authorities were investigating Ciavarella and his colleague, Judge Michael J. Conahan. That separate probe ended with the judges being charged in an alleged criminal scheme that shocked anyone with a conscience.
Ciavarella and Conahan are accused of taking kickbacks of more than $1.3 million each from the operator of two juvenile-detention facilities in return for ensuring lucrative contracts with Luzerne County. And for each child sentenced to those facilities, the operator received a tidy sum from the government.
The “cash-for-kids” scandal prompted the legislature to form a special commission to investigate the wrongdoing and recommend corrective action.
For their work in exposing this miscarriage of justice, the Editorial Board has selected MARSHA LEVICK and LOURDES ROSADO of the Juvenile Law Center as The Inquirer’s 2009 Citizens of the Year.
Levick, a native of Philadelphia, co-founded the Juvenile Law Center in 1975 with fellow Temple University law school graduate Robert Schwartz. He is the JLC’s executive director; Levick is deputy director and chief counsel.
Rosado, who grew up in New York City, began her career as a journalist. She earned her law degree at New York University, and in 1998 came to the JLC, where she serves as associate director.
Their efforts on behalf of children in Luzerne County were time-consuming and sometimes frustrating.
They collected data, county by county, and discovered that the percentage of juveniles appearing in court without counsel in Luzerne County was 10 times higher than the state average.
The lawyers filed individual petitions to free juveniles from detention, and were winning their cases. But as the scope of the problem became clear, Rosado and Levick filed a rare request with the state Supreme Court in spring 2008, asking the justices to serve as a trial court in the hope they could stop the judicial abuses and win relief for hundreds of kids.
The state attorney general and Department of Public Welfare joined the request.
For months, they heard nothing. In December 2008, Levick and Rosado again asked the court for a ruling. Two weeks later, the Supreme Court denied their petition without explanation. No justice even bothered to sign the one-page rejection.
“It was a huge disappointment,” Levick said. “But this was our mission, and we were not going to let these kids down.”
Less than a month later, the FBI filed charges against Ciavarella and Conahan, exposing their alleged for-profit scheme. Armed with that information, Levick and Rosado went back to the state Supreme Court, and finally the court took up their case.
They are also pursuing a federal civil-rights complaint against various officials.
Looking back, the lawyers still express shock at what Levick calls “a vast conspiracy of silence” among Luzerne County officials, including the district attorney and public defender, for allowing the abuses of the juvenile court system to go on for so many years.
“These were not bad kids,” Levick said. “It was greed, it was the most extraordinary abuse of power without regard for the families and the kids.”
This is The Inquirer’s sixth annual Citizen of the Year award, honoring people whose work has upheld the ideals of citizenship — promoting justice, strengthening democracy, or fostering community. The board considers nominees from business, science and medicine, education, government, arts and culture, civic activism, sports, and entertainment.
In 2008, the winner was Harry S. Pozycki, chairman of the Center for Civic Responsibility in New Jersey. In 2007, it was Helen Gym of the public-schools advocacy group Parents United. Former Mayor W. Wilson Goode Sr. won in 2006 for his work helping children of incarcerated parents. In 2005, Russell Diamond, Timothy Potts, and Eugene Stilp won for leading the pay-raise revolt in Harrisburg. Former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean became the first recipient in 2004, for leading the independent 9/11 Commission.