Pa. Juvenile Justice In Spotlight After Verdict

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A former Pennsylvania judge faces more than 150 years in prison for his role in a $2.8 million bribery scandal known as "cash for kids" after a jury convicted him Friday of taking kickbacks from the developer of a private detention center. But critics of the state's juvenile justice system say more reforms are still needed.

Hillary Transue was a high school sophomore with a spotless record in 2007 when she found herself in Judge Mark Ciavarella's courtroom in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Her alleged crime was making a spoof MySpace page that poked fun at her high school's vice principal.

"The first thing Ciavarella said to me was what makes you think you can do this kind of crap? Never got asked if I was guilty. It was just assumed that I was," she says.

Transue was expecting a stern lecture and probation. Instead she was sentenced to 90 days of detention and led out of the courtroom in handcuffs. That's when her mother brought the case to the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia.

Marsha Levick, the center's deputy director, says it wasn't the first time the law center had heard of Ciavarella. She says kids routinely appeared in his courtroom without defense lawyers and received draconian sentences for minor infractions. Many were led out of the courtroom in shackles.

"This pervasive violation of kids' rights went on every day in front of the professionals who appeared in the courtroom, and for years, nobody said a thing," she says. "And so it went on unchallenged."

On Friday, a jury in Scranton, Pa., convicted Ciavarella on 12 counts, including racketeering. They found him guilty of taking kickbacks from a developer who built two private detention centers in Pennsylvania, but acquitted him of charges that he took bribes in exchange for sending juveniles to detention.

Transue, who is now at college in New Hampshire, has mixed feelings about the verdict.

"There definitely is justice in the world, and that makes me feel good. But it's kind of a letdown on the other hand that no one seemed to care that there was money involved," she says. "But it seems to me that the whole issue of injustice in general really wasn't addressed."

A Pennsylvania government commission conducted its own investigation of the "cash for kids" scandal last year. Many courthouse employees told the commission they were afraid to speak up for fear of retribution.

"There was a total collapse of the rule of law," said Judge John Cleland, the commission's chairman.

His panel issued a report in May 2010 that included 44 specific recommendations for reform. So far, only a few have been adopted.

"I made a commitment that this report would not sit on a shelf and collect dust," says Republican state Sen. Lisa Baker of Wilkes-Barre.

She introduced a package of reform measures last year, including one that would require defense counsel for all juvenile defendants. Her bills died in the Legislature last session, but Baker says she is determined to try again in the wake of Ciavarella's conviction.

"The timing of the verdict and the trial will help us really showcase why we need to make these changes and bring to light an important reason why this needs to be done as quickly as possible," she said.

But Levick at the Juvenile Law Center worries that problems in the juvenile justice system will fade from view now that the criminal trial is over.

"The hard work lies ahead of us in Pennsylvania," she says. "The kinds of things we saw in Luzerne County could happen again, if we don't address the complacency and complicity and the lack of attention."

Levick says it was that complacency that allowed Ciavarella to enrich himself at the expense of Pennsylvania's children.

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