Recently, a judge was sentenced to 28 years in federal prison for accepting a $1 million kickback from a builder of for-profit juvenile prisons. Although the judge, Mark Ciavarella, presided in Luverne County, Pennsylvania, this story is chilling for criminal defense attorneys across the country who represent juvenile crime suspects.
In return for the kickback, Judge Ciavarella reportedly made a habit of sentencing youths to time in the prisons that were being built. Children as young as 10 years old were sentenced, for “outrageous” crimes such as stealing a jar of nutmeg or posting a web page containing spoofs of an assistant principal. In one especially sad case, a 17-year old with no prior history of conviction was sentenced to several months in a private prison and wilderness camp for possessing drug paraphernalia. He never recovered from the experience and took his life at the age of 23.
If this is true (Judge Ciavarella denies it), it represents the gross abuse of a trusted position — in fact, this guy sounds like a character in a Dickens novel. This blog has already discussed the vulnerable position of juvenile defendants. Here in Texas, juveniles’ constitutional rights are repeatedly overlooked. Though juvenile defendants are supposed to receive notice of the charges they are facing, they frequently do not. They also have a Sixth Amendment right to competent representation, but too often, the kindest word you can use to describe it is “inadequate.” Too often, teenagers are treated like young adults — “Certified” as Adults, and given adult sentences and put in adult prisons under the misguided belief that they would never “learn their lesson” in a juvenile detention center. Things have gotten a bit better, with the state focusing a tiny bit more on rehabilitation than “lock ’em up” policies, but much of the neglect still needs to be addressed.
Yet it is one thing to be a judge who neglects to uphold juvenile suspects’ constitutional rights — a terrible failure on their part, to be sure — but there is something incredibly vicious about a judge who deliberately harms young people for his own gain, and who does it because they are so young, and have less understanding and fewer resources to fight back. Not every juvenile defendant can obtain the help of a defense attorney who knows how to defer prosecutions or find the right expert testimony. The prison-building industry is quite lucrative in Texas and in many other parts of the country: could there be other judges who while not rising to the heinous example set by this judge, nevertheless wittingly or unwittingly engage in prison building behavior toward the juveniles who come before them?
Young people are taught in school to honor and respect our system of government, including the judicial system. Judges are at the pinnacle of that honored system. What message do young people receive when judges use their role to harm those they are supposed to be objective towards?
To be fair, in my experience most judges who handle juvenile cases are honorable and try to follow the law and work hard to see to it that kids are handled fairly in their courts. But the system itself contributes heavily to the incarceration of kids–first in juvenile facilities, then inevitably to Adult institutions.
Judge Ciavarella’s 28-year sentence amounts to life in prison (he is 61 years old), yet probably not nearly enough as far as his young victims are concerned. More importantly he is off the bench. I hope and believe that the juvenile system in Texas and elsewhere can see beyond incarceration and prison building and act in the best interest of the child and in so doing act in the best interest of society.