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More than 2,000 young people in Pennsylvania are trying to put one of the nation's worst juvenile justice scandals behind them. It's been a year since a former judge was convicted of taking kickbacks in a scheme that funneled young offenders to privately run prisons. The episode became known as the kids for cash scandal. New rules intended to protect the rights of children took effect this week, but as NPR's Joel Rose reports, questions about Pennsylvania's juvenile justice system remain.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: It was no secret in Luzerne County if you wound up in Judge Mark Ciavarella's courtroom you were in trouble, big trouble.
LAURENE TRANSUE: I should have known before we went to court. I figured she's never been in trouble with the law before, like, what could it be?
ROSE: Laurene Transue and her daughter Hillary appeared before Judge Mark Ciavarella in 2007 after Hillary created a satirical Myspace page making fun of her high school principal. Laurence Transue had spent years working for social service agencies in other counties, so she thought she knew how the case would go. She figured Hillary, who has been a sophomore, would apologize and get a stern lecture and maybe community service. She was wrong.
TRANSUE: We weren't in there 60 seconds, the gavel came down. They took her away, handcuffed her, and that was that.
ROSE: Without realizing it, Laurene Transue had waived her daughter's right to counsel. Hillary was sentenced to three months of detention.
TRANSUE: When they took Hillary away, I - they had to help me out of the room. I just could not reconcile what had just happened with what I knew should have happened. It just - it didn't make any sense to me. Just the way the judge spoke, his demeanor in the courtroom, I was shocked.
ROSE: The Transues' experience was typical. About half the defendants who appeared before Judge Ciavarella waived their right to a lawyer. Kids were routinely let out of his courtroom in shackles for minor offenses, and they were 10 times as likely to receive out-of-home placement as kids in other Pennsylvania counties. It went on like this for seven years.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And a former Pennsylvania juvenile judge has been sentenced to 28 years in prison...
ROSE: Ciavarella was convicted of racketeering and conspiracy for taking nearly $1 million from the developer of two for-profit prisons. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has since vacated a total of 2,251 convictions from his courtroom. Ron Castille is the court's chief justice.
RON CASTILLE CHIEF JUSTICE, PENNSYLVANIA SUPREME COURT: This was a huge black eye that barely describes a enormity of what was going on up there. And because of that, we've made a lot of changes in the juvenile rules.
ROSE: Changes that are supposed to prevent another kids for cash scandal from happening. For one thing, the use of shackles is now strongly discouraged. And starting this month, defendants in juvenile court will not be allowed to waive their right to counsel, except in rare cases. That's a big step forward, says Marsha Levick at the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, which helped bring the Ciavarella case to light. But Levick says there's another problem. Pennsylvania is one of just a handful of states that do not provide any money to counties to defend those who can't afford a lawyer.
MARSHA LEVICK: That means that we really have justice by geography here. Kids in smaller counties, in poorer counties will often get very poor representation.
ROSE: Since the kids' scandal, Luzerne County has beefed up its juvenile defense team. Public defender Al Flora says the juvenile unit now has three full-time lawyers up from just one part-timer, plus two social workers. But Flora has done that mainly through short-term grants. He's fighting with county officials to get the money to keep the unit going.
AL FLORA CHIEF PUBLIC DEFENDER, PENNSYLVANIA: The problem we're facing right now in Luzerne County, it seems like people forget as to what has happened in the past.
ROSE: What would happen in Luzerne County if you can't find the resources to continue the juvenile unit that you have?
PENNSYLVANIA: Basically, what would happen is, the unit would probably be shut down. I would lose my social workers. I would probably just end up with one lawyer.
ROSE: Flora has urged Pennsylvania lawmakers to set aside some money for juvenile defense, so has Laurene Transue. She attended every day of former Judge Ciavarella's two-week corruption trial last year.
TRANSUE: I just really felt that I had to be there, that I had to see this person go through all the proper procedures. He received so much than our children did not.
ROSE: Laurene Transue's daughter Hillary is now a junior in college in New Hampshire. Transue says they won't forget Judge Ciavarella any time soon, though she wonders if state lawmakers already have. Joel Rose, NPR News, Philadelphia.
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