ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Kids in Luzerne County had a powerful incentive to stay out of the courtroom of Mark Ciavarella, a fearsome, zero-tolerance judge who tossed youths into juvenile detention even when their crimes didn't warrant it.
Ciavarella ordered a 13-year-old boy to spend 48 terrifying days in a private jail for throwing a piece of steak at his mother's boyfriend during an argument. An honor roll student who had never been in trouble before was sent to the same jail, PA Child Care, because she gave the middle finger to a police officer. A girl who accidentally set her house ablaze while playing with a lighter languished in PA Child Care for more than a month — forced to shower naked in front of male guards, she says, and prohibited from hugging her family during rare visits.
She was 10 years old.
PA Child Care's beds were filled with young offenders who didn't belong there, prosecutors allege, because its owner was paying kickbacks to Ciavarella.
Today, the disgraced ex-judge will stand trial in one of the biggest courtroom scandals in U.S. history — a $2.8 million bribery scheme known as "kids for cash."
A state panel that investigated called Ciavarella "Dickensian" in his treatment of juvenile offenders and said that he reigned over juvenile court in a "harsh, autocratic and arbitrary" manner. The ex-judge has said he didn't believe he was breaking the law.
Ciavarella and another implicated judge, Michael Conahan, left the bench shortly after being charged in January 2009.
Court documents outline a scheme in which Conahan, then Luzerne County's president judge, forced the county-run juvenile detention center to close in 2002 and helped PA Child Care LLC, a company owned by a friend, secure contracts worth tens of millions of dollars to house youth offenders at its new facility.
Ciavarella, who presided over juvenile court, sent youths to PA Child Care and to a sister facility while he was taking payments from the owner and the builder of the facilities, prosecutors said.
Ciavarella and Conahan initially pleaded guilty in February 2009 to honest services fraud and tax evasion in a deal with federal prosecutors that called for a sentence of 87 months in prison. But their plea deals were rejected by Senior U.S. District Judge Edward M. Kosik, who ruled they had failed to accept responsibility.
A federal grand jury subsequently returned a 48-count racketeering indictment against the judges. Conahan pleaded guilty to a single racketeering charge last year and awaits sentencing.