John Baer: It's time state righted juvenile-law injustice

Former Luzerne County Judges Michael Conahan (left) and Mark Ciavarella took bribes from for-profit detention homes, where they sent kids for relatively minor offenses.

I BELIEVE THERE'S a special place in hell for those who harm children: pedophiles, abusive parents, Catholic priests and judges.

So it was with some satisfaction that I noted the 28-year jail term hung on former Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella last week for his role in the "cash for kids" scandal; since he's 61, that's maybe the rest of his life in prison.

The scandal, involving Ciavarella and another judge taking huge bribes to flush thousands of kids (most with no legal representation) into for-profit detention homes for mostly minor crimes, got global attention as a stunning example of evil.

Robert Schwartz, head of the Philly-based Juvenile Law Center, calls it "the most egregious violation of children's rights in U.S. history, tainting over 4,000 cases."

Schwartz, with 36 years of juvenile-law experience, says, "We couldn't find anything worse."

Many teens were first offenders charged with "crimes" such as grabbing loose change from cars or spoofing school officials online. They were sentenced and led from court in shackles. Some spent years locked up. One, a 17-year-old high-school wrestler, later killed himself.

Another judge, Michael Conahan, pleaded guilty last year and awaits sentencing.

I think our Legislature should plead guilty - to unforgivable inaction.

The story broke in 2008. Since then our lawmakers have failed to close loopholes in juvenile law that helped this abomination happen and that could, on a smaller scale, allow it to happen again.

Oh, there were predictable cries of outrage and injustice, the expected flurry of activity and introduction of legislation. But that's it.

The only law passed to date provides restitution to original victims of teen vandalism or property damage in cases now vacated. Real reforms passed the House or Senate, but nothing's gone to the Guv.

Lots of bills are pending. One would create public online data showing how many kids are sent to prison. Another would toughen criminal sanctions for public officials such as judges who abuse their power or violate individuals' rights.

The critical bills pending would require that all charged juveniles have counsel, prohibit shackling at hearings except in extreme cases, require that judges explain reasons for sentences, provide easier expungement of juvenile records, and extend confidentially rights to teens prosecuted by district justices.

The state Supreme Court, after initially dragging its feet on this case, ordered some of these changes by rule. Lawmakers pushing reforms say they need to be permanently enacted.

"I'm not going to be satisfied until the reforms are signed into law," says state Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne County, sponsor of separate bills. "We need to have a conclusion. These reforms are essential."

Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery County, also a sponsor of reforms, says juvenile law should emphasize "least harsh" sentencing in most cases: "We can really destroy a kid with excessive punishment. We saw that in Luzerne by taking juveniles out of their homes."

Greenleaf adds that juvenile records can disproportionately affect a kid's future, whether the kid seeks to enter college, the military or the job market.

The Legislature is recessed: until late September for the House, mid-September for the Senate. Its priority items this fall include vouchers, selling state liquor stores and seeking a fee on shale drilling.

It already passed decorative measures creating Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Week and Child Abuse Prevention Month. It should turn to substance.

It should expand its fall priorities to improve the juvenile-justice system to prevent the kind of life-altering injury to teens and their families our state now is tainted with. There's no excuse for not doing so. None.


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