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Penn. Judges Get Kickbacks for Placing Youths in Privately Owned Jails

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An unprecedented case of judicial corruption is unfolding in Pennsylvania. Several hundred families have filed a class-action lawsuit against two former judges who have pleaded guilty to taking bribes in return for placing youths in privately owned jails. Judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan are said to have received $2.6 million for ensuring juvenile suspects were jailed in prisons operated by the companies PA Child Care and a sister company, Western PA Child Care. Some of the youths were jailed over the objections of their probation officers. An estimated 5,000 juveniles have been sentenced by Ciavarella since the scheme started in 2002. We speak to two youths sentenced by Ciavarella and to Bob Schwartz of the Juvenile Law Center. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: An unprecedented case of judicial corruption is unfolding in Pennsylvania. Several hundred families have filed a class-action lawsuit against two former judges who have pleaded guilty to taking bribes in return for placing youths in privately owned jails. Judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan are said to have received $2.6 million for ensuring that juvenile suspects were jailed in prisons operated by the companies Pennsylvania Child Care and a sister company, Western Pennsylvania Child Care. Some of the young people were jailed over the objections of their probation officers. An estimated 5,000 juveniles have been sentenced by Ciavarella since the scheme started in 2002.

In addition to the jailing of the youths, the judges also admitted to helping “facilitate” the construction of private jails. The US attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, Martin Carlson, unveiled the charges last month.

    MARTIN CARLSON: These payments were made to the judges, it is alleged, in return for discretionary acts by the judges favoring these businesses, acts relating to the construction, expansion, operation of these juvenile facilities and acts relating to the placement of juveniles in these facilities.

AMY GOODMAN: On Thursday, Judges Ciavarella and Conahan entered guilty pleas on charges of wire fraud and income tax fraud. They’re currently free on a $1 million bail bond pending sentencing. Their plea agreements call for jail sentences of more than seven years. No charges have been filed against the private prisons that paid the bribes.

Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court has appointed an outside judge to review all the cases tried by Ciavarella and Conahan. But the case has prompted calls for broader reforms of the juvenile justice system in Pennsylvania and nationwide.

We’re joined now by two of the thousands of youths jailed by the corrupt judges. On the line with us from Scranton, Pennsylvania, eighteen-year-old Jamie Quinn is with us. She spent more than eleven months in a privately run juvenile prison camp after being sentenced by Judge Mark Ciavarella as a first-time offender. Also on the line in the nearby town of Wilkes-Barre is twenty-two-year-old Kurt Kruger. Another first-time offender, he spent more than four months in a privately run prison — juvenile prison camp after also being sentenced by Judge Ciavarella.

And joining us in a studio in Philadelphia is Bob Schwartz. He is a co-founder and executive director of the Juvenile Law Center, which helped expose the corrupt judges and is now involved in the class-action suit brought on behalf of the jailed youths’ families.

We asked PA Child Care, the main private jail company linked to the bribes, to come on the broadcast. We were directed to an attorney who didn’t respond to our request.

Bob Schwartz, let’s start with you. When did all this begin to be revealed? How did it all happen?

BOB SCHWARTZ: Thanks, Amy, and thanks for having Kurt, Jamie and me on your show.

This has been going on, we believe, in Luzerne County since 2003. It came to Juvenile Law Center’s attention a couple of years ago, when we heard from the mother of one of the girls whom we ended up representing, a young woman named Hillary Transue, who was brought into court, found guilty, sent away for an internet parody of an assistant principal at her high school. Her mother found us, and when we were able to bring a habeas corpus petition on Hillary’s behalf, she told our attorneys that she wasn’t the only one who had been locked up by Judge Ciavarella, that there were lots of other kids in the same situation. That was a couple of years ago.

And we began investigating and found that Luzerne County had half of the waivers of counsel in Pennsylvania of all the cases in which lawyers were waived by young people in juvenile court. Hillary had, unknown to her, signed a paper, her mother had signed a paper, giving up her right to a lawyer. That made the 90-second hearing that she had in front of Judge Ciavarella pretty much of a kangaroo court. So, she was sent away. We investigated and last year, about a year ago, brought a petition before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court asking them to take a look at all of the cases in which kids were tried and adjudicated delinquent and many sent away without a lawyer. We thought that was the problem. That turned out to be the tip of the iceberg. When we filed, it turned out that the FBI began its investigation and found the corruption that you spoke about at the top of this segment.

AMY GOODMAN: And just very briefly, Hillary — explain what she did. A cartoon?

BOB SCHWARTZ: She had done a — I think a MySpace parody of her — of an assistant principal, a paragraph or two, with internet humor of an adolescent variety, finishing by saying, “I hope that Mrs. Smith” — or Jones — “has a sense of humor.” It turned out that the assistant principal didn’t, we gather, at least, complained to the police, who filed a harassment petition against Hillary. This is the kind of case, like Kurt’s and like Jamie’s, that never should have been in court in the first place, let alone get to a trial. Juvenile court is not designed for this kind of adolescent misbehavior. The cases should have been diverted entirely. Instead, Hillary and Kurt and Jamie and thousands of others were used by the court for profit, while many people over many years stood by watching.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to Jamie Quinn right now. Jamie, welcome to Democracy Now!

JAMIE QUINN: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Are you speaking to us from your house?


AMY GOODMAN: So, you were in jail for almost a year. Where were you imprisoned? What was the name of this juvenile prison camp?

JAMIE QUINN: Well, first, I was told that I was only going to be at PA Child Care for up to three days. I was there for a week and then got sent to a military boot camp called VisionQuest in Quincy Township. It’s about an hour and a half away. And I spent most of my time there. And then I got FTA’ed from there and sent to — back to PA Child Care —-

AMY GOODMAN: And “FTA’ed” means…?

JAMIE QUINN: Failure to adjust. And then I got sent back to PA Child Care, was there for about two weeks, because they said they couldn’t find a bed for me, and they didn’t know like where to place me. And then I went to a step-down program. They told me I needed to go there in order to be able to go back into the community. And I went to Wilkes-Barre, a place in Wilkes-Barre which is called Bridgeview.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, just step back for a second, Jamie.


AMY GOODMAN: Tell us why you were convicted.

JAMIE QUINN: Well, I was about fourteen years old, and I got into an argument with one of my friends. And all that happened was just a basic fight. She slapped me in the face, and I did the same thing back. There was no marks, no witnesses, nothing. It was just her word against my word. My only charges were simple assault and harassment. And I didn’t even know that charges were pressed against me until I had to go down to the intake and probation and fill out a whole bunch of paperwork.

AMY GOODMAN: Wait. So that is what you went to jail for almost a year for?


AMY GOODMAN: How old were you?

JAMIE QUINN: I was fourteen, turning fifteen, and my court hearing was December 20th, three days before my birthday.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break. Then we’re going to come back, and we’re going to hear Kurt’s story, Kurt Kruger, who was also imprisoned by one of these corrupt judges for more than four months. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking about the case of two judges who have pled guilty to receiving $2.6 million in return for placing youths in privately owned jails. Today, we’re speaking with two of those youths. Jamie Quinn just told us her story. We now turn to Kurt Kruger.

Kurt, tell us how you ended up in one of these privately run juvenile prison camps for more than four months. How did you get there?

KURT KRUGER: Well, first off, thank you for having us.

Basically, I was with a girl who was shoplifting DVDs from a Wal-Mart, local Wal-Mart, and we were caught, and I was considered the lookout. And it was basically just stupid kid stuff. The police came to the Wal-Mart and then called our parents. A week after this happened at Wal-Mart, they sent us letters that we were to appear in the probation office for interviews so they could decide court dates. And I then, after that interview, moved out of my father’s house because of personal problems. And at some point, a appearance in court did come to my house, a letter did come to my house, but I had no contact with my father, so I had no idea. The only idea I had of anything that was going on was that the girl who I was with, who was actually the one shoplifting, never received a letter of a court appearance or anything, never heard anything else about the case. So I thought that it was done and over with.

I was living with a friend for awhile, and I started going to school in the fall. I was eighteen at the time when I started going to school. I was seventeen when the incident occurred at Wal-Mart. I was in school one day, and I was called up to the probation officer’s office in the school, and there was a police officer there waiting for me, and he handcuffed me and led me out of the school and put me in the squad car and drove me up to PA Child Care in Pittston.

Since it was a Friday, I had to wait over the weekend to go in front of Judge Ciavarella, so I spent three days in PA Child Care, thinking the entire time that I screwed up but I was just going to get probation, at the worst. And I was then sentenced in a 90-second hearing. I was sentenced to Camp Adams for a minimum of ninety days. And I was never offered a lawyer, never explained my rights to a lawyer or what benefits it would have. I was just sent away to Camp Adams for at least ninety days, and I spent the better part of four-and-a-half months there.

AMY GOODMAN: And tell us about the judge, Mark Ciavarella, who sent you there and your reaction when you heard that he pled guilty.

KURT KRUGER: Shock, I guess. I mean, it was expected that he was going to plead guilty for this last week, but when all of this first started coming up, it was just absolute shock, because I had thought that I had just gotten a raw deal, that, you know, maybe possibly he was in a bad mood that day or something. I had never thought that the scope and the scale of this entire -— of this entire investigation and what has come of it.

AMY GOODMAN: How old were you when you went to jail?

KURT KRUGER: I was eighteen at the time.

AMY GOODMAN: Jamie, how did going to jail for almost a year, after your fight with your friend — how did that affect your life?

JAMIE QUINN: It affected me dramatically. I mean, you know, you think it wouldn’t, but it really has. I mean, I’ve lost friends over this. People looked at me different when I came out, thought I was a bad person, because I was gone for so long. My family started splitting up, and in my personal opinion, I think it’s because I was away and got locked up and was, I thought, getting, you know, punished for what I had did, which I don’t think I should have.

And I was just — I’m still struggling in school, because the schooling system in facilities like these places are just horrible. Everybody gets put in the same level, and it’s just horrible. I’m still struggling. I’m graduating this year. And math is still not my favorite subject. I was like an A-B student before I went, and now I’m just struggling with Bs and Cs.

AMY GOODMAN: You began cutting yourself in jail?


AMY GOODMAN: Why do you think you started doing that?

JAMIE QUINN: Honestly, I never even — like I was never — I didn’t even know what it was until I was sent to VisionQuest. And I was never depressed, I was never put on meds before. I went there, and they just started putting meds on me, and I didn’t even know what they were. They said if I didn’t take them, I wasn’t following my program. So, in my opinion, I think that it was the meds at the time. I mean, I was never medicated in my life nor diagnosed with depression. And that’s what I believe happened.

AMY GOODMAN: You were sent to the hospital three times —-


AMY GOODMAN: —- during that almost year?

JAMIE QUINN: Yeah, Chambersburg Hospital.

AMY GOODMAN: Bob Schwartz, the plan now, and how much representation do young people have in Pennsylvania?

BOB SCHWARTZ: Well, in most Pennsylvania counties, almost all kids have a lawyer all the time. Pennsylvania law requires all youth to have a lawyer at the time of the first hearing before a detention officer to a judge at every subsequent hearing. Pennsylvania has granted kids, in many ways, more rights to lawyers than many states.

On the other hand, in Luzerne County, that was a right that was largely ignored. Lawyers doing their job would get in the way of this railroad from the bar or the court to Pennsylvania Child Care and other placements that was taking place in Luzerne County at the time. One of the things that we hope that will come out of this is that it will be much harder for any youth to appear before any judge without a lawyer in this state.

Meanwhile, there are several proceedings that are happening at the same time. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has finally agreed to hear the case. They took the case after the US attorney acted at the end of January, and there will now be an examination of all 5,000 or so cases that took place in Luzerne County from 2003 forward. There are also going to be multiple civil rights actions in federal court in Scranton, going after not only the judges but others who conspired with them to hurt kids like Jamie and Kurt. What happened to them should never happen to a child in the United States of America.

AMY GOODMAN: And the role of the police in the schools, very briefly, in this, Bob Schwartz?

BOB SCHWARTZ: Well, the police were ordered to make an arrest. You know, it really varies in so many ways. They were obviously told in Kurt’s case to bring him to court, because there was a court warrant issued, because he had failed to appear for a hearing that he didn’t know about. They might have acted differently, but certainly the probation department and the court should have acted differently. The probation department was intimidated by the judges. They are court employees. And one of the things that the information of the US attorney claims is that Judge Ciavarella and Judge Conahan had probation officers change their recommendations, ordered them to change their recommendations, in order to make sure that they had enough kids to fill slots at these childcare facilities.

AMY GOODMAN: And the childcare facilities themselves? They paid the bribes.

BOB SCHWARTZ: They paid, and the federal proceedings will bring to light what their role actually was. Right now, they have not been charged criminally, but they are inevitably a defendant in every civil rights proceeding.

AMY GOODMAN: So, we’re talking about 5,000 kids like Jamie, like Kurt. How much jail time do these judges face?

BOB SCHWARTZ: They’ve pled and are expecting to get eighty-seven months in federal prison. That’s a little more than seven years, if the judge accepts the plea bargain.

AMY GOODMAN: Jamie, how do you feel about that?

JAMIE QUINN: It just makes me really question other authority figures and people that we’re supposed to look up to and trust. I mean, Ciavarella has been a judge for a long time, from what I know, and a well-respected one, is what I thought. And obviously not. It just really makes me question and not trust other people. I mean, if someone like Judge Ciavarella could do this, then it makes me believe that anyone can betray the law and — I don’t know.

AMY GOODMAN: And Kurt, your final comment?

KURT KRUGER: Well, basically, I just want to say that finally there’s some sort of closure, for me, at least, coming from the lawsuits from the Juvenile Law Center. There’s at least a little bit of closure for me, and I hope that’s the same case for everyone who’s involved.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Kurt Kruger and Jamie Quinn, thanks so much for being with us, and Bob Schwartz, as well. I want to turn now to the commentary that alerted us to this story, of Mumia Abu-Jamal. He’s been on Pennsylvania’s death row for more than twenty-five years.

    MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: “With Judges Like These.” In Pennsylvania’s Luzerne County, there are nine judges of the Court of Common Pleas. Two of them just pleaded guilty to a conspiracy to convict and sentence juveniles to a private prison, so that they could get kickbacks from the prisons’ builders and owners. According to published accounts, Judge Mark A. Ciavarella and Senior Judge Michael T. Conahan sent hundreds of boys and girls to the private facility and pocketed some $2.5 million in kickbacks. This was accomplished not merely because of the venal greed of the judges, but because virtually none of the children were provided with legal representation.

    When the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center filed a petition in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, calling the county’s practice of adjudicating and sentencing some 250 kids to jail without legal representation unconstitutional, the state’s highest court denied the petition on January 8th. A month later, they changed their minds, vacating the denial. What transpired in the interim? Well, for one thing, the two judges pleaded guilty to federal charges of wire service fraud. Hundreds of children get sucked into jail after clearly unconstitutional proceedings with no legal representation, and the state supreme court doesn’t even raise an eyebrow. The media reports on this outrage, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court expresses a little interest.

    This is the nature of judging these days, when even kids are expendable fodder for the prison-industrial complex. Luzerne County is the state’s tenth largest county with just over 300,000 souls. At least 22 percent of their judges have admitted being corrupt in the sordid business of selling the freedom of poor children for profit.

    From death row, this is Mumia Abu-Jamal.

AMY GOODMAN: And we thank the Prison Radio Project in San Francisco and Noelle Hanrahan.

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