HARRISBURG, PA — The Pennsylvania Senate last week unanimously passed Bill 815, which was sponsored by Senator Lisa Baker. The bill has been sent to Governor Tom Corbett, who signed it on April 9.
The bill requires that nearly all juveniles who appear in Pennsylvania Juvenile Courts be represented by legal counsel. Baker said she began thinking about the measure as early as 2008, when a scandal broke regarding two judges in Luzerne County.
The scandal, which came to be known as “Kids for Cash,” involved President Judge Mark Ciavarella and Senior Judge Michael Conahan, who were accused of accepting money from a man who built for-profit juvenile facilities in Wilkes-Barre.
In turn, the judges would impose harsh sentences on the juveniles to ensure that they would be sent to the facilities.
According to the Juvenile Law Center, which initiated an investigation in 2007, the two judges received some $2.6 million in alleged kickbacks for the scheme. Furthermore, Conahan used his position of authority to help ensure that the county juvenile facility was denied funding and forced to close.
As to the scope of the scandal, the law center wrote, “From 2003 to 2008, the Luzerne County judicial corruption scandal altered the lives of more than 2500 children and involved more than 6000 cases. Over 50% of the children who appeared before Ciavarella lacked legal representation; 60% 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.”
It was the lack of representation that most concerned Baker. She said in a press release, “From the moment the details of the judicial corruption in Luzerne County came to light, I was convinced that any reform effort must include mandatory counsel legislation. As much as the public agreed, there were strongly dissenting views registered from the inside.”
To get this far, she said, “has taken time, perseverance, and a refusal to be discouraged or dissuaded. Our action on Senate Bill 815 sends an important message about delivering reform, about underscoring the profound purpose of constitutional rights, and about ensuring the respect owed those appearing before our juvenile justice system.”
She continued, “There is a good reason why action by each of the branches of state government has been necessary. No one in a position of responsibility acted in response to complaints—not the state judiciary, not county officials. The feds had to come in to investigate, indict and prosecute.”
Under the new law, judges must state their reasons on the record for each juvenile disposition, as well as the goals, terms and conditions of the sentence. If a child is to be committed to out-of-home placement, the court must also specifically name the facility, or type of facility, as well as the reasoning behind the decision to select that facility.
The two judges involved in the scandal are now both serving time in federal prisons, and others connected with the scandal have also been convicted or pleaded guilty to various charges.