Cleaning up after the Luzerne mess

 

The judge assigned to scrutinize the cases of thousands of teens railroaded by two upstate Pennsylvania judges has endorsed important reforms that could prevent a repeat of the Luzerne County kids-for-cash scandal.
 
Senior Berks County Judge Arthur E. Grim called for legal safeguards including more public funding to defend indigent juveniles, a speedier appeals process, opening up juvenile court hearings, and creating a statewide watchdog for juvenile cases.
 
In an announcement Monday, Grim endorsed a number of sensible proposals put forward by the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, which unearthed many of the cases in which Luzerne County teens were jailed with little or no legal advice.
 
Over a five-year period sitting in juvenile court, former Luzerne judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. dispensed a kind of frontier justice that resulted in hundreds of teens’ being incarcerated, often for minor offenses.
 
Federal prosecutors have charged Ciavarella and former Judge Michael T. Conahan with pocketing $2.8 million in kickbacks from the owner and builder of two private juvenile detention facilities. The former judges deny the charges.
 
With some notable differences, both Grim and the law center attorneys have called for more transparency, sentencing fairness, and greater access to legal counsel.
 
That growing consensus around reform should help a special commission reviewing the scandal to come up with forceful recommendations to Gov. Rendell, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, and state lawmakers.
 
Some reforms will require more financial resources at a time of stretched state budgets, as well as changes in legal procedure that may rock the boat in county courthouses around the state.
 
A key decision for the 11-member Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice will be whether it takes the needed tough line requiring that all juveniles have legal counsel at their hearings.
 
In many Luzerne cases, teens and their families were hoodwinked into waiving their right to an attorney. The JLC says the courts should adopt a policy barring any child from waiving legal representation, while Grim only recommends that a juvenile be required to consult with an attorney prior to waiving counsel.
 
After the black eye that Luzerne County has given the state’s juvenile-justice system, it would be wiser to err on the side of having all juvenile defendants adequately represented by a lawyer.
 
There should be little debate over the need to tighten standards by which judges place juvenile offenders in detention centers and other rehabilitation settings.
 
A tougher nut to crack will be how to avoid a repeat of the Luzerne County situation where key players ignored warning signs, or were powerless to object when teens were being railroaded.
 
Grim’s suggestion of court-ordered ethics training is inadequate. A tougher stance would be for the commission to call for disciplinary reviews of attorneys who frequented Ciavarella’s courtroom, and also require greater vigiliance by the state’s Judicial Conduct Board.
 
Judge Grim described the Luzerne abuses as “the wanton exercise of power, dominated by greed, and with little or no concern for the welfare of juveniles.” That means nothing less than sweeping reform will do.

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