The painfully slow pace of expunging juvenile delinquency records for thousands of children caught up in the Luzerne County kids-for-cash scandal shows that it can take years to redress an injustice that took only minutes to perpetrate.
One year after Pennsylvania court officials ordered the records of 4,500 juvenile defendants wiped clean, it’s simply unacceptable that only about 10 percent of the records have been expunged.
For the nearly 1,400 juveniles among this group who were jailed as part of what federal prosecutors allege was a kickback scheme to fill privately owned jails, the delay is all the more unconscionable.
These children — one as young as 10 — had perfunctory hearings before former Luzerne County Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr., often after having been talked into waiving their right to a lawyer. Many were shackled and taken directly to jail from Ciavarella’s courtroom.
Ciavarella faces corruption charges along with former Judge Michael T. Conahan. Prosecutors allege that the men took $2.8 million in payoffs from the operators of two juvenile detention centers. Conahan has agreed to plead to a conspiracy charge, while Ciavarella says he still plans to fight to prove his innocence.
The former judges’ swift removal from the bench last year meant they could do no more harm to the Luzerne juveniles. The teens’ future prospects, though, will be clouded for as long as it takes to expunge their records — whether they’re applying for summer work, college and training programs, or even full-time jobs.
The fact that county officials only recently moved to hire a half-dozen additional staff devoted to the records is an indication that not all Luzerne officials have faced up to this judicial travesty.
That wouldn’t be the first time.
In 2008, the state Supreme Court delayed intervening in the controversy for months and months — despite compelling evidence of injustice presented the court by the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center.
At least with more staff onboard, the head of Luzerne County probation services, Michael Vecchio, estimates the job can be completed in one year — rather than being dragged out for several more years.
It should be a top priority for Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille to assure that the complex process of expunging the records is expedited — even as Castille deals with the fallout from having at best botched the planning of a new Family Court in Philadelphia.
In addition to expunging the kids’ records, judicial leaders need to get moving on 43 reform recommendations from the Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice. The panel’s report issued in late May calls for an overhaul of the juvenile-justice system to prevent a repeat of the scandal. The proposals include assuring that juvenile defendants have lawyers, and that judges and other stakeholders in the legal community are held more accountable.
It figures that the private jail-payoff scheme would become a staple plotline for television dramas by now. But the many injustices should be remedied before those shows appear in reruns.