Monday, February 23, 2009

Corruption and Public Trust



Whenever public money or political power is placed into the hands of private entities, whether citizens or corporations, there has to be transparent accounting of all transactions. If not, it's almost inevitable that corruption seeps into the system and gross injustices inflict lasting harm on the public trust to the integrity of the system.


Ciavarella assured the community that he could provide justice. Elected to the bench in 1996, he once ran for judge on the promise that he would punish "people who break the law," according to local reports.

The corruption began in 2002, when Conahan shut down the state juvenile detention center and used money from the Luzerne County budget to fund a multimillion-dollar lease for the private facilities. Despite some raised eyebrows from the community, county commissioners approved the deal.

The federal government began investigating in 2006.

"It's been a dark cloud hanging over the county for a very, very long time," said Luzerne County Commissioner Maryanne C. Petrilla, whose office approved the judges' budgets during the corruption. "I'm looking forward to the ship turning around now and us moving in the right direction."

The kickback scandal highlights a major problem in the juvenile justice system in Luzerne County and across the country, attorneys say. They say hundreds of children who appeared before Ciavarella didn't have lawyers.

"Kids think very much in the present, and they have limited abilities to understand long-term consequences," said Robin Dahlberg, an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union in New York who specializes in juvenile issues.

Dahlberg's recent study in Ohio revealed that some of the counties had as many as 90 percent of children going through the court system without a lawyer.

"This Pennsylvania case is a sad reminder of why kids need an attorney," she said.

A 1967 Supreme Court ruling says children have a right to counsel. However, many states allow children and their parents to appear without an attorney by completing a waiver.

Pennsylvania is among about half of the states in the country that allow waivers to be signed for juveniles to appear before a judge without an attorney, legal experts say.

In Luzerne County, teens who waived counsel were at greater risk of being sent to placement center than those with representation.

About 50 percent of the children who waived counsel before Ciavarella were sent to some kind of placement, the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center reports. In comparison, the Juvenile Court Judges' Commission in Pennsylvania found that 8.4 percent of juveniles across the state wind up in placement.

"When you have this many kids waiving counsel, then that's way out of line," said Marsha Levick, an attorney at the Juvenile Law Center. "There was no record [Ciavarella] was assuring the child and parent about the consequences of not having representation."

Minors charged with nonviolent crimes were often given harsher sentences than what probation officers recommended, court documents say. Other investigators say the trials lasted a few minutes at most.

Privatizing detention facilities is a growing in popularity among governments because the companies say they offer lower rates than the state.

Pennsylvania has the second highest number of private facilities after Florida, accounting for about 11 percent of the private facilities in the United States, according to the National Center for Juvenile Justice in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Critics say private prisons lack transparency because they don't go through the same inspections and audits as a state facility, and this may have allowed payoffs to go so long without being noticed.

"Once somebody is going to make more money by holding more kids, there is a pretty good predictable profit motive," said criminal justice consultant Judith Greene, who heads a nonprofit group called Justice Strategies. "It's predictable that companies are going to tolerate certain behaviors they shouldn't."

An audit draft obtained by the Philadelphia Inquirer showed that Luzerne County was spending more than $1.2 million in expenses that weren't allowed under state regulations. The Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, the agency overseeing the audits, says the audit drafts are not final.

The audits also allege that two people paid the judges. Attorneys for former Mid-Atlantic owner Robert Powell say that their client is one of those people but that he was pressured by the judges to make payments. The attorneys say Powell never offered to pay the judges, never sought to influence any juvenile case and is now cooperating with the investigation. Zappala and Powell were partners until Zappala bought out Powell in 2008.

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