In what is being called one of the worst judicial scandals in American history, two Pennsylvania judges will have to pay over $200 million in damages for their part in the “kids-for-cash” scheme that sent children to jail in exchange for monetary kickbacks.
Judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan were previously found guilty of a scheme that got them rich while thousands of kids were sent to detention centers for minor infractions.
First, the pair made $2.8 million to shut down a county jail and instead funnel minors to two for-profit detention centers, PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care.
Ciavarella’s juvenile court then instated a zero-tolerance policy that sent thousands of kids to the centers in exchange for kickbacks, often for minor offenses like petty theft, jaywalking, truancy, and smoking on school grounds.
According to the Associated Press, 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.”
The offenders were as young as 8 years old.
“Ciavarella and Conahan abandoned their oath and breached the public trust,” U.S. District Judge Christopher Conner wrote in his explainer. “Their cruel and despicable actions victimized a vulnerable population of young people, many of whom were suffering from emotional issues and mental health concerns.”
He went on to say that the judges caused “unspeakable physical and emotional trauma.”
During the trial, 282 people who were sent to jail because of the kickbacks testified against the judges as well as 32 parents. A full 79 of the people who testified were under 13 when they were locked up.
Ciavarella has maintained that what he did was legal. In the aftermath of the scandal, 4,000 convictions involving about 2,300 kids have been thrown out. But that can’t undo much of the damage.
One person testified that the judge had ruined his life and that the conviction “just didn’t let me get to my future.” Multiple children who were locked up have since died of suicide or drug overdoses.
Perhaps the worst part of the case? The victims and their families will probably not see much, if any, of the $200 million in damages because the judges have few assets.
“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.”
Ciavarella is serving a 28-year sentence in Kentucky that began in 2008 — not sure if his prison is for-profit or not.
Conahan was sentenced to 17 years in prison but is now serving home confinement apparently because of the pandemic.
The owner of the private lock-up facility has paid out $25 million in damages in the years since the scandal originally broke.