Decisions made in our old judicial system are founded on the wisdom of the Constitution, and meant to be guided by fair and unbiased judges and juries of our peers. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case.
Believed to be the largest judicial corruption scandal in our history, two Pennsylvania judges pocketed millions from the developer of juvenile detention facilities, where they were sending thousands of kids to cockroach-infested jail cells for minor infractions.
Hillary Transue, 14, created a false, comedic Myspace page about her school’s vice principal. Justin Bodnar, 12, use profanity towards another student’s mother. Ed Kenzakoski, 17, did nothing at all. But, even though these antics caused little to no damage, it didn’t matter.
Go to Court
All three juveniles from Luzerne County, Pennsylvania met the same fate for their minor infractions. They were forced to attend court with their parents. According to these children and their parents, they were coerced by police to waive their right to legal counsel.
Philip Swartley was at a sleepover at his friend’s house when he ran into a bit of trouble. The eighth-grader had been walking around the neighborhood checking for unlocked cars so he could swipe change. He was busted by the cops.
His family expected the 14 year old, who had never gotten into trouble at school, yet alone with the police, would be given community service, since the money he had taken only amounted to the price of the chips and soda the teenagers wanted to buy. No one anticipated that the boy would appear handcuffed in a courtroom before being sentenced to nine months at a boarding school away from his family.
Hillary Transue had a harassment charged filed against her when she made a joke about her school’s vice-principal on MySpace. Hillary and her mother also believed she would get community service. Instead the 15 year old was shipped off to a juvenile detention camp after a trial lasting no longer than a minute.
No Legal Counsel
Hillary’s mother panicked once she heard the sentence. She had not realized that one of the many papers she’d had to sign waived her daughter’s right to an attorney. And no one had warned them of the detrimental consequences of not being represented by a lawyer.
Laurene Transue immediately contacted a juvenile rights advocacy group in Philadelphia, who filed a petition for Hillary’s release: within a few weeks, she was set free. Hillary was lucky in that she was rescued from the detention camp quickly. Hundreds of other teenagers were not so lucky.
Thrown Into Jail
These kids were all brought before Judge Ciavarella and, without any warning or the chance to offer a defense, found themselves pronounced guilty, shackled to handcuffs and sentenced to months of detention. These children were trapped in the juvenile justice system for years, robbing most of them of their entire high-school experience.
Kids For Cash
Phillip and Hillary were only two of the more than 5,000 children who appeared before Judge Ciavarella before he was busted for his involvement in one of the worst corruption scandals of all time. Judge Ciavarella and another Luzerne County judge, Michael Conahan, had accepted nearly $2.6 million in alleged kickbacks from two private for-profit juvenile facilities. In other words, the more children that were thrown into jail, the more money in the pockets of these greedy, corrupt judges. The magnitude of the violations of the children’s rights in Luzerne County turned out to be more shocking than anyone could have imagined.
From 2003 to 2008, the Luzerne County judicial corruption scandal destroyed the lives of more than 2,500 children and involved more than 6,000 cases. Over half of the children who appeared before Ciavarella lacked legal representation and a whopping 60 percent of these children were removed from their homes. Many of them were sent to one or both of the two facilities at the center of the corruption scandal.
Public to Private
The scandal began in 2002, after Conahan shut down the state-run juvenile detention center and changed it into private detention facilities. Private facilities are sometimes used by states since they are known to be more cost efficient than government run facilities. However, private detention facilities are also exempt from the inspections and audits that state facilities undergo, which allowed the “kids for cash” scheme to go on for as long as it did.
Finally, after countless complaints from parents and numerous advocacy groups fighting for justice, a federal investigation into Ciavarella and Conahan brought to light the havoc they had caused for years. Conahan pleaded guilty to fraud, racketeering, and tax evasion. On September 23, 2011, Conahan was sentenced to 17.5 years in prison and ordered to pay 874,000 dollars in restitution.
Ciavarella would not be going down so easily. Unlike Conahan, Ciavarella did not accept a plea agreement and completely denied allegations of his involvement in the scam. Ciavarella and his family have publicly accused Conahan of lying about the scam and Ciavarella’s involvement.
Their Turn For Prison
However, the jury was not buying into his story, resulting in the judge to sentence him to 28 years in prison, 10 more years than Conahan. Had he admitted to his crimes, Ciavarella may have had a lesser sentence, similar to that of Conahan. But, for the teenagers who stood before the two disgraced judges, the damage had already been done.
When Philip Swartley was released from the facility he had been sent to, his mother reported he had become “withdrawn and depressed.” Hillary also suffered from depression and anxiety far into her college years: “I was hiding in my dorm room, sleeping for days. If I missed class it was not because I was partying. It was because I was sitting in my room eating a whole bag of Doritos.” Although Hillary eventually overcame her depression and get her life back on track, others were not so lucky.
Never The Same
17-year old Edward Kenzakoski was never able to recover from his time spent at the juvenile facility. According to his mother, the former all-star wrestler “was just never the same. He could never recover.” In 2010, Kenzakoski committed suicide by shooting himself in his chest, a tragic effect of the downward spiral initiated by the two corrupt judges.
During Ciavarella’s trial, as his lawyer held a press conference outside the courthouse, Edward’s mother, Sandy Fonzo, who had been standing to the side, unleashed years of pain and anguish on the man she held responsible. “My kid’s not here anymore! He’s dead! Because of him!” she screamed, pointing at Ciavarella as news cameras rolled.
Another Life Ruined
Jeff Pollins was in the same crowd awaiting to see the man who destroyed the lives of their children. His stepson was convicted by Ciavarella. “These kids are still affected by it. It’s like post traumatic stress disorder,” Pollins told the Times Leader. “Our life is ruined. It’s never going to be the same. … I’d like to see that happen to him,” he said.
Edward’s story, along with Hillary’s and several others, was portrayed in the acclaimed documentary: “Kids for Cash.” The film generated immense public interest upon its release. It highlights the devastating stories of the scandal’s real victims and the lengths people, even those who are meant to be the fairest, will go to for greed.
Justice Will Not Be Served
Those who were sent to jail by disgraced Judge Mark Ciavarella more than a decade ago are utterly outraged that he could possibly get years knocked off his sentence. A federal judge on Monday ordered a new trial for the judge on three of his felony convictions. All of those sentenced in the “Kids for Cash” scandal are now in their 20s and 30s. Justice will not be served if the man convicted of profiting from their convictions could be out of prison sooner than expected.