Former Pennsylvania judges Mark Ciavarella, who was the former president of the Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas, and Michael Conahan, who was the president judge of Luzerne County, are the men at the center of the so-called “kids for cash” scandal which was uncovered in 2008.
The men were accused of taking bribes for sentencing minors extremely harshly, and sending them to long stays at for-profit detention centers, and are both currently serving sentences in prison. Ciavarella’s sentence is 28 years long and the sentence for Conahan is 17 years long.
Throughout the early and mid-2000s, complaints were lodged against both judges for a variety of reasons including inappropriate sentencing, which was a charge against the county that was investigated, and nepotism. With the complaints against Conahan the complaints were never investigated by the Pennsylvania state Judicial Conduct Board, nor did they ever seek documentation that was relevant to the complaints before 2008.
In 2009, the Office of the United States Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania made the details of the charges against the two judges public and revealed that the judges went out of their way to facilitate the creation of private juvenile facilities operated by Pennsylvania Child Care companies and had relationships with these companies which explained why the two judges behaved so favorably towards them.
Examples of this relationship and the lengths that were taken to ensure their success include the fact that Conahan used his authority as President Judge of the court to remove funding for the publicly operated facility in order to necessitate the usage of privately operated ones. The judges also used their authority to disregard recommendations by Juvenile Probation Officers and send young people to the facilities, after which they’d be paid for ensuring that the facilities never run the risk of failure. The two judges were also alleged to have committed tax evasion due to the significant compensation they received by the companies who paid them for their illegal activities, companies that were co-owned by attorney Robert Powell.
Powell himself has been forced to issue payments to people who were jailed in Luzerne County and their parents to the tune of millions of dollars to almost 2,000 affected people, over 1,000 young people and 600 parents. Powell pleaded guilty in mid-2009 for failing to report a felony and being an accessory to tax evasion conspiracy as it relates to the money he paid to the judges, and his law license was temporarily suspended by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Other people who pled guilty included Robert Mericle, a famous real estate developer who built the facilities, he pled guilty to failing to disclose a felony and he served a one year sentence in federal custody while paying to fund children’s health and welfare programs in the area, and Sandra Brulo, who was the former Deputy Director of Forensic Services for the Luzerne County Juvenile Probation Office who pled guilty in relation to charges of federal obstruction of justice for attempting to fool the system and change a date of when she made a recommendation that a juvenile defendant be placed in a facility to appear as if she actually recommended probation in September of 2007. Brulo pled her guilt in March of 2009.
There was an attempt at a negotiated plea deal which would have both judges serve up to 7 years in prison, pay fines and restitution, and accept guilt for the crimes. This was said to be too light a punishment in light of the contexts of the crimes and the behavior of the judges including denying their wrongdoing by Judge Edwin M. Kosik of the Federal District Court in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
Efforts by attorneys representing the judges would have had the judge reconsider his rejection of the plea agreement but that motion was denied, and both judges subsequently withdrew their pleas. This led judge Ciavarella to a jury trial where he was found guilty.
Conahan had pled guilty to one charge of racketeering conspiracy and was sentenced to 17 and a half years in federal prison.