After being indicted for sending hundreds of children to “for-profit jails” in exchange for kickbacks, two former Pennsylvania judges – Mark Ciavarella & Michael Conahan – have been ordered to pay more than $200m as damages to their victims.
Did they get that much in kickbacks?
No, the investigation found that they accepted $2.8m in illegal payments. The huge damages award appears to be largely symbolic, as a lawyer for the plaintiffs said it is a recognition of the gravity of the crimes committed by the disgraced judges. “Ciavarella and Conahan abandoned their oath and breached the public trust. Their cruel and despicable actions victimized a vulnerable population of young people, many of whom were suffering from emotional issues and mental health concerns”, U.S. District Judge Christopher Conner wrote in his explanation of the judgment.
Did they convict anyone unjustly?
While presiding over the juvenile court, Ciavarella was said to have promoted a zero-tolerance policy that ensured that hundreds of children were sent to the PA Child Care and its sister facility, Western PA Child Care. In the process, he ordered children as young as 8 to detention – many of them first-time offenders deemed delinquent – for petty theft, truancy, smoking on school grounds, and other minor infractions. About 4,000 juvenile convictions involving more than 2,300 kids have been thrown out by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, following the scandal.
Were the private facilities illegal?
No, they weren’t. The indicted judges were said to have shut down the government-run juvenile detention center in order to patronize the private facilities, obviously after reaching an agreement with the builder and co-owner of the private lockups. On the orders of Ciavarella, youths found delinquent was immediately shackled, handcuffed, and taken away without a chance to put up a defense or say goodbye to their families. For these infractions, Judge Conner awarded $106m in compensatory damages and $100m in punitive damages against the indicted judges.
Describing how traumatizing the experience was, one of the victims was said to have lamented that Ciavarella “ruined my life” and “just didn’t let me get to my future”. “I feel I was just sold out for no reason. Like everybody just stood in line to be sold”, another one said. According to judge Conner, some of the victims who were part of the lawsuit when it began in 2009 have since died from overdoses or suicide.