In Pennsylvania, juveniles before two judges in one particular courtroom had no chance.
The judges predetermined the outcome, in collusion with a juvenile detention center, amid kickbacks and graft.
In what authorities are calling the biggest legal scandal in state history, the two judges pleaded guilty to tax evasion and wire fraud in a scheme that involved sending thousands of juveniles to two private detention centers in exchange for $2.6 million in kickbacks.
On Thursday, the State Supreme Court ordered that the records be cleaned for hundreds of the 2,500 or so juveniles sentenced by Judge Ciavarella, and in the coming weeks, the two judges will be sentenced, under a plea agreement, to more than seven years in prison.
While the scandal continues to ripple nationally as legal experts debate whether juvenile courts have sufficient oversight, here in Luzerne County people are grappling with more immediate questions: How did two native sons, elected twice to the bench to protect children and serve justice, decide to do the opposite? And why did no one stop them?
Old Friends Hatch a Plan
It all started in June 2000 with a simple business proposition, according to the judges’ indictment and more than 40 interviews with courtroom workers, authorities and others.
Robert J. Powell, a wealthy personal-injury lawyer from Hazleton and longtime friend of Judge Conahan, wanted to know how he might get a contract to build a private detention center. Judge Ciavarella thought he could help.
The two men agreed to meet and, according to prosecutors, somewhere in that conversation a plan was hatched that courthouse workers and county officials would later describe as a “freight train without brakes.”
First, Judge Ciavarella put Mr. Powell in touch with a developer who also happened to be an old friend, Robert K. Mericle, to start work on finding a site. Then, in January 2002 — the month Judge Conahan became president judge, giving him control of the courthouse budget — he signed a secret deal with Mr. Powell, agreeing that the court would pay $1.3 million in annual rent, on top of the tens of millions of dollars that the county and the state would pay to house the delinquent juveniles. And by the end of that year, Judge Conahan had gotten rid of the competition by eliminating financing for the county detention center.