Mark Ciavarella, the Pennsylvania judge known as "Mr. Zero Tolerance," had a reputation for running his courtroom like an assembly line, spending just a minute or two on each of the juvenile offenders who appeared before him. If they were not represented by lawyers, which was usually the case, they would more often than not be shipped off in shackles to some form of detention, even for trivial crimes.
Aside from defendants and their parents, few people seemed concerned about Ciavarella's mindlessly tough attitude -- until it turned out he was receiving kickbacks from the private detention centers where he sent juvenile offenders. But for those suspicious payments, Ciavarella, who was convicted last week of racketeering and related charges, might still be practicing his special brand of injustice, which he and his supporters said helped kids by hurting them.
Federal prosecutors say Ciavarella and Michael Conahan, at the time Luzerne County's president judge, conspired to replace the county's dilapidated juvenile detention center with new ones built and operated by their cronies. Conahan, who pleaded guilty to racketeering last year, arranged for the centers to get the county's business, while Ciavarella kept them full. In exchange, they received $2.9 million.
Years before this arrangement came to light in January 2009, it should have been clear something was amiss in Ciavarella's courtroom. In 2004, the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader reported that the share of juvenile offenders given out-of-home "placements" -- 21 percent under Ciavarella, up from 4.5 percent under his predecessor -- was higher in Luzerne County than anywhere else in the state.
The article noted the "skyrocketing costs" associated with Ciavarella's harshness and suggested that local schools had become too dependent on his court to handle discipline problems. But it also cited a dramatic reduction in juvenile recidivism. "It looks like it works," a defense attorney told the paper, while Ciavarella insisted, "I'm in the business of trying to help these kids." He was elected to a second 10-year term the following year.