Two former Pennsylvania judges who plotted to send children to for-profit prisons in exchange for kickbacks were ordered to pay more than $200 million to hundreds of victims of one of the worst legal scandals in the US. history of the US.
U.S. District Judge Christopher Conner awarded $106 million in compensatory damages and $100 million in punitive damages to nearly 300 people in a long-running civil suit against the judges, writing that the plaintiffs are “the tragic human victims of a scandal of epic proportions.”
In what became known as the kids-for-money scandal, Mark Ciavarella and another judge, Michael Conahan, closed a county-run juvenile detention center and accepted $2.8 million in illegal payments. from the builder and co-owner of two for-profit lockups. Ciavarella, who presided over the juvenile court, implemented a zero-tolerance policy that ensured that large numbers of children would be sent to PA Child Care and its sister facility, Western PA Child Care.
Ciavarella ordered detention for children as young as 8, many of them first deemed delinquent for petty theft, jaywalking, truancy, smoking on school grounds and other minor offenses. The judge often ordered that youths he found delinquent were immediately handcuffed, handcuffed and taken away without giving them a chance to defend themselves or even say goodbye to their families.
“Ciavarella and Conahan have abandoned their oath and violated public trust,” Conner wrote in his commentary on the verdict on Tuesday. “Their cruel and despicable actions have victimized a vulnerable population of young people, many of whom suffered from emotional and mental health problems.”
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court dismissed some 4,000 juvenile convictions involving more than 2,300 children after the plan was discovered.
It is unlikely that the now adult victims will see even a fraction of the dazzling compensation, but a lawyer for the plaintiffs said it is an acknowledgment of the enormity of the crimes committed by the disgraceful judges.
“It’s a huge victory,” Marsha Levick, co-founder and chief counsel of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia and an attorney for the plaintiffs, said Wednesday. “To have an order from a federal court that recognizes the seriousness of what the judges did to these children during some of the most critical years of their childhood and development is hugely important, whether the money is paid or not. “
Another attorney for the prosecutors, Sol Weiss, said he would start an investigation into the judges’ belongings but thought they had no money to pay a verdict.
Ciavarella, 72, is serving a 28-year prison sentence in Kentucky. Its expected release date is 2035.
Conahan, 70, was sentenced to more than 17 years in prison but was released under house arrest in 2020 – with six years left on his sentence – due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Conner ruled after hearing frequent emotional testimony last year from 282 people who appeared before the Luzerne County Juvenile Court between 2003 and 2008 — 79 of whom were under 13 when Ciavarella sent them to juvenile detention — and 32 parents.
“They talked about his harsh and arbitrary nature, his disdain for a fair trial, his extraordinary abruptness and his arrogant and rude behavior in the courtroom,” Conner wrote.
An unnamed child victim testified that Ciavarella “ruined my life” and “just wouldn’t let me go to my future,” according to Conner’s statement.
Another claimant said: “I feel like I was just sold out for no reason. As if everyone was queuing up to be sold.”
Another victim described how he shook uncontrollably during a routine traffic stop – a result of the traumatic impact of his juvenile detention – and had to show his mental health records in court to “explain why my behavior was so erratic”.
Several of the child victims who were part of the lawsuit when it began in 2009 have since died of overdose or suicide, Conner said.
To calculate compensatory damages, the judge ruled that each plaintiff was entitled to a base rate of $1,000 for each day of wrongful detention, and adjusted that amount based on the circumstances of each case. Significant punitive damages were warranted because the disgraced judges inflicted “unspeakable physical and emotional trauma” on children and adolescents, Conner wrote.
The damages only cover claimants who have chosen to participate in the trial.
Other key figures in the case settled years ago include the builder and owner of the private lockups and their companies, with payouts totaling about $25 million.