ABOVE PHOTO: In this Tuesday, Sept., 15, 2009, file photo, former Luzerne County Court Judges Michael Conahan, front left, and Mark Ciavarella, front right, leave the United States District Courthouse in Scranton, Pa. The two Pennsylvania judges who orchestrated a scheme to send children to for-profit jails in exchange for kickbacks were ordered to pay more than $200 million to hundreds of children who fell victim to their crimes. U.S. District Judge Judge Christopher Conner awarded $106 million in compensatory damages and $100 million in punitive damages to nearly 300 plaintiffs in a long-running civil suit against the judges.(Mark Moran/The Citizens’ Voice via AP)
By Michael Rubinkam
Two former Pennsylvania judges who orchestrated a scheme to send children to for-profit jails in exchange for kickbacks were ordered to pay more than $200 million to hundreds of people they victimized in one of the worst judicial scandals in U.S. history.
U.S. District Judge Christopher Conner awarded $106 million in compensatory damages and $100 million in punitive damages to nearly 300 people in a long-running civil suit against the judges, writing the plaintiffs are “the tragic human casualties of a scandal of epic proportions.”
In what came to be known as the kids-for-cash scandal, Mark Ciavarella and another judge, Michael Conahan, shut down a county-run juvenile detention center and accepted $2.8 million in illegal payments from the builder and co-owner of two for-profit lockups. Ciavarella, who presided over juvenile court, pushed a zero-tolerance policy that guaranteed large numbers of kids would be sent to PA Child Care and its sister facility, Western PA Child Care.
Ciavarella ordered children as young as 8 to detention, many of them first-time offenders deemed delinquent for petty theft, jaywalking, truancy, smoking on school grounds and other minor infractions. The judge often ordered youths he had found delinquent to be immediately shackled, handcuffed and taken away without giving them a chance to put up a defense or even say goodbye to their families.
“Ciavarella and Conahan abandoned their oath and breached the public trust,” Conner wrote Tuesday in his explanation of the judgment. “Their cruel and despicable actions victimized a vulnerable population of young people, many of whom were suffering from emotional issues and mental health concerns.”
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw out some 4,000 juvenile convictions involving more than 2,300 kids after the scheme was uncovered.
It’s unlikely the now-adult victims will see even a fraction of the eye-popping damages award, but a lawyer for the plaintiffs said it’s a recognition of the enormity of the disgraced judges’ crimes.
“It’s a huge victory,” Marsha Levick, co-founder and chief counsel of the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center and a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said Wednesday. “To have an order from a federal court that recognizes the gravity of what the judges did to these children in the midst of some of the most critical years of their childhood and development matters enormously, whether or not the money gets paid.”
Another plaintiffs’ attorney, Sol Weiss, said he would begin a probe of the judges’ assets, but did not think they had any money to pay a judgment.
Ciavarella, 72, is serving a 28-year prison sentence in Kentucky. His projected release date is 2035.
Conahan, 70, was sentenced to more than 17 years in prison but was released to home confinement in 2020 — with six years left on his sentence — because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Conner ruled after hearing often-emotional testimony last year from 282 people who appeared in Luzerne County juvenile court between 2003 and 2008 — 79 of whom were under 13 when Ciavarella sent