Jacob Sullum

Meanwhile, stories of juvenile offenders mistreated by Ciavarella were trickling out. A 10-year-old girl who accidentally set her bedroom on fire spent a month in a detention center. A 13-year-old boy got 48 days for throwing a steak at his mother's boyfriend during an argument. Ciavarella locked up another 13-year-old boy for failing to testify against a fellow student who brought a knife to a school dance. A 15-year-old was sentenced to a boot camp for "an indefinite period" after she wrote a prank note that was deemed a "terroristic threat." A 16-year-old spent a month in a boot camp for creating a MySpace page that made fun of her high school's assistant principal. A 17-year-old boy charged with possessing drug paraphernalia, his first offense, served a total of five months.

Despite such reports, the state Judicial Conduct Board declined to act on a 2006 complaint that outlined Conahan and Ciavarella's conflicts of interest. As late as January 2009, two weeks before the "cash for kids" story broke, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected a petition in which the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, joined by the state Department of Public Welfare, asked it to nullify hundreds of Ciavarella's decisions. The April 2008 petition noted that juvenile offenders in Ciavarella's courtroom were routinely pressured to waive their right to counsel and plead guilty without being informed of the consequences.

After the charges against Ciavarella and Conahan were announced, the state Supreme Court suddenly discovered a "travesty of juvenile justice." Saying it "cannot have any confidence that Ciavarella decided any Luzerne County juvenile case fairly and impartially," it overturned thousands of convictions.

Superior Court Judge John Cleland, who headed the state panel that investigated Luzerne County's juvenile justice scandal, was dismayed by the "inaction" of "those who knew but failed to speak." Judging from the pre-scandal praise for Ciavarella's effectiveness, part of the blame for this silence lies with a "scared straight" mentality that sacrifices law for the illusion of order.


Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
 
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