Two former Pennsylvania judges who orchestrated a scheme to send children to for-profit prisons in exchange for bribes have been ordered to pay more than $200 million to hundreds of people they victimized in one of the worst court scandals in US history.
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 lawsuit against the judges, writing that the plaintiffs are “the tragic human victims of a scandal of epic proportions”.
In what has become known as the child-for-cash scandal, Mark Ciavarella and another judge, Michael Conahan, shut down a county-run juvenile detention center and accepted $2.8 million in illegal payments of the builder and co-owner of two for-profit establishments. Ciavarella, who presided over the juvenile court, pushed for a zero-tolerance policy that ensured large numbers of children would be sent to PA Child Care and its sister facility, Western PA Child Care.
Ciavarella ordered the detention of children as young as 8 years old, many of whom were first-time offenders tried for petty theft, jaywalking, truancy, smoking on school grounds and other minor offenses. The judge often ordered that young people he found delinquent be immediately shackled, handcuffed and taken away without giving them a chance to defend themselves or even say goodbye to their families.
“Ciavarella and Conahan abandoned their oath and breached the public trust,” Conner wrote Tuesday in his explanation of the judgment. “Their cruel and despicable actions victimized a vulnerable population of young people, many of whom suffered from emotional problems and mental health issues.”
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw out some 4,000 juvenile convictions involving more than 2,300 children after the scheme was discovered.
Now-adult victims are unlikely to see even a fraction of that eye-popping amount, but a lawyer for the plaintiffs said it was an acknowledgment of the enormity of the disgraced judges’ crimes.
“It’s a huge win,” Marsha Levick, co-founder and chief attorney of the Juvenile Law Center of Philadelphia and plaintiffs’ attorney, said Wednesday. “Having a federal court order recognizing the seriousness of what judges did to these children in the midst of some of the most critical years of their childhood and development matters a great deal whether the money is paid or not. “
Ciavarella is serving a 28-year prison sentence. Conahan, who was sentenced to more than 17 years in prison, was returned to house arrest in 2020 – with six years remaining on his sentence – due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Conner ruled after hearing often moving testimony last year from 282 people who appeared in Luzerne County Juvenile Court between 2003 and 2008 – 79 of whom were under 13 when Ciavarella sent them to juvenile detention. – and 32 relatives.
“They recounted his harsh and arbitrary nature, his disregard for due process, his extraordinary brusqueness, and his cavalier and rude behavior in the courtroom,” Conner wrote.
An anonymous child victim testified that Ciavarella had “ruined my life” and “just wouldn’t let me have my future,” according to Conner’s decision.
Another complainant said, “I feel like I was sold for no reason. As if everyone was lining up to be sold.
Another victim described how he shook uncontrollably during a routine traffic stop – a consequence of the traumatic impact of his childhood 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 trial when it began in 2009 have since died of drug overdoses 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. Substantial punitive damages were warranted because disgraced judges inflicted “indescribable physical and emotional trauma” on children and adolescents, Conner wrote.
The award of damages only covers plaintiffs who have elected to participate in the process.