When we think of the juvenile justice system, most of us believe it is rooted in fairness. In this lesson, we will see that this is not always the case. The Kids for Cash Scandal in Pennsylvania is a prime example of juvenile justice gone wrong.
A Brief History
Until just over a century ago, there was one justice system that dealt with both adults and minors. Around this time it was recognized that the justice system should be adapted for juveniles, and the juvenile justice system was born. In it's beginnings, the emphasis of this justice system for minors was on rehabilitation and providing treatment to offenders so that they could re-enter society and become productive citizens. For this reason, and still today, the names of minors who enter the juvenile justice system are kept confidential. In turn, this allows them to eventually be returned to society without a label.
As the years went by, however, the states all developed their own juvenile justice systems and protocol associated with these systems. As crimes increased, the focus of the juvenile justice system moved from being primarily rehabilitative to more punitive in nature. Statutes were enacted that allowed juveniles to be prosecuted in adult criminal courts, especially for more heinous and sinister offenses. However, the American public believed in the fairness of the system and protecting the rights and liberties of those who entered it. Unfortunately this all changed in 2007, when someone reported a string of juvenile convictions in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania - convictions that simply did not make much sense.
Luzerne County, Pennsylvania
Luzerne County is located in the state of Pennsylvania and has just under 320,000 residents. It is one of the larger counties in Pennsylvania and attracts visitors for it's natural beauty and landscape. The unassuming nature of Luzerne County was shattered, however, when a scandal was uncovered in 2007.
Kids for Cash Scandal
Following a phone call alleging concerns about Luzerne County's juvenile justice system, an investigation was initiated in 2007. It was eventually discovered that for a five-year period beginning in 2003, the rights of juvenile offenders processed through the system had been severely violated. Known as the Kids for Cash Scandal the scheme involved two Luzerne County judges, Judge Mark Ciavarelli and Judge Michael Conahan. In addition, two private developers of juvenile detention facilities in Luzerne were also involved.
The Kids for Cash Scandal involved encouraging juveniles and their parents to waive procedural safeguards after entering the juvenile justice system under false pretense that their cases would be resolved more efficiently. Instead, juveniles who committed minor offenses were sentenced to ridiculously severe punishments that were to be served out in select juvenile detention facilities. The following offers some real case examples of the offenses and punishments that were handed out:
- A teenage girl was sent to a detention facility for making fun of a school administrator on a social media page
- A boy in his teens was accused of throwing a piece of food at his stepfather and was ordered to be detained for almost 20 days
- A 14-year-old boy who intervened in an incident of bullying and defended the victim physically was sentenced to 90 days in a juvenile detention facility
It was discovered the judges involved had entered into a business relationship with the developers of the detention facilities. By handing down stiff penalties and sending these juveniles to the facilities for incarceration, they in turn received financial payments estimated to be in excess of 2.5 million dollars.
It was discovered that more than 2,500 juveniles were victims of the Kids for Cash Scandal. Most of their convictions were reversed as a result of the investigation. Both judges lost their right to practice and all four parties involved were ordered to serve jail time. It is unclear how many young lives were permanently damaged as part of this financial scheme, but there is at least one case of documented suicide that can be directly tied to the scandal.
The juvenile justice system evolved a little more than a century ago when it was recognized that juvenile offenders required different treatment and interventions than adults. Initially the system focused primarily on the rehabilitation of juvenile offenders, but as time progressed, the system became more punitive in nature, emphasizing that serious crimes deserve serious consequences, even for minors.
The juvenile justice system differs by state. In 2007, however, the system was called into question in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, when allegations of the unfair punishment of juvenile offenders surfaced. An investigation revealed that Judge Mark Ciavarelli and Judge Michael Conahan, together with two private developers of juvenile detention facilities, were involved in what became known as the Kids for Cash Scandal.
The judges sentenced approximately 2,500 juveniles to serve time in juvenile detention facilities, even when the crimes they stood accused of committing did not warrant it. In return they received financial compensation from the developers of these facilities. After the investigation was complete, the judges and the developers involved were sentenced to jail time, and almost all of the sentences were reversed, but not without leaving some permanent emotional scars on the juveniles involved.