Racketeering former judge disgraced his office

Woman who said corrupt Luzerne judge railroaded her son berates Ciavarella after his conviction.

After getting convicted of racketeering and other charges, former Luzerne County Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. tried to claim victory since the jury acquitted him of other charges.

Well, Ciavarella can celebrate all he wants behind bars. The bottom line is the disgraced former judge is very likely going to prison for a number of years.

The case decided last week by a federal jury in Scranton will be remembered as one of the nation’s worst judicial scandals ever.

Ciavarella’s scheme — hatched with another corrupt judge — involved taking nearly $1 million in illegal payments from a juvenile detention center’s builder and not reporting it. In turn, he sent juveniles to the facility, often for petty violations.

Ciavarella said his acquittal on extortion and bribery charges showed he didn’t take cash for kids, as prosecutors alleged.

Regardless, his conviction highlighted a weakness in the judicial system whereby juveniles often do not receive adequate legal representation, and can get sent to prison for minor infractions. It also underscored a broader pattern of corruption in Luzerne County that needs rooting out.

Despite the alarming legal abuses of power by the judges, it remains to be seen if the case will have a lasting impact as far as changing the legal system for juveniles across the state or in cleaning up the corrupt culture that seems to run deep in the Scranton and Wilkes-Barre region.

At the very least, Ciavarella’s case has put judges, lawyers and parents on notice as to the rights of juveniles. Despite promises that such an abuse will never happen again, so far state lawmakers have done nothing to actually institute ironclad safeguards.

A report issued last May by the Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice made a number of worthy recommendations to the General Assembly that have not been adopted. One key reform called for all juveniles facing the courts to have legal representation.

It was documented that thousands of kids appeared before Ciavarella without an attorney after being pressed to waive their right to legal representation. Another worthy reform not recommended by the commission would be the creation of a state ombudsman’s office for juveniles.

Many of the parents and juveniles ensnared by Ciavarella’s frontier justice said they knew something was wrong but did not know where to go for help. An independent state office could provide a check and balance to ensure judges do not abuse their authority.

Meanwhile, a civil lawsuit has been filed against Ciavarella. Federal prosecutors are continuing a four-year-old corruption probe in the region that so far has resulted in more than 30 arrests, including two other Luzerne County judges, a former state senator, a former Lackawanna County commissioner, and a former commissioner.

In addition, former Democratic State Sen. Robert J. Mellow from Scranton is under investigation, a federal appeals court disclosed in a ruling last week.

It is unclear where all of the investigations will lead. But it is hoped that the prosecutions of high-profile public officials will lead to a much-needed change in culture in a region where corruption seems to be a way of life.