Weekly Notes: Major Luzerne update; New York JJ quandary; and more

Print More

***Luzerne Update! A brief filed this week by U.S. attorneys in the case against disgraced judges Michael Conahan and Mark Ciavarella articulates what the government hopes to prove at trial. And one aspect of the attorneys’ case could be a major boost to the class-action lawsuit brought against the judges by hundreds of youths that came before the juvenile court last decade.

The civil suit seeks damages on behalf of the youths on the grounds that Ciavarella, the juvenile judge, steered them into the newly constructed private detention center in order to justify the center’s existence. Ciavarella heavily profited through kickbacks from the center’s owner, according to prosecutors.

But heretofore, the actual filings and documentation in the criminal case against the judges had not focused on that aspect. Most earlier filings dealt with the judges’ decision to stop placing youths in Luzerne County’s public detention center and start placing them in the private one facility.

That, in and of itself, wasn’t necessarily bad for the youths in question. The old detention center looks like a mental institution from a horror flick, and by all accounts it was less than adequate inside as well. The number of youths placed in detention clearly went up after the change of detention venue. However, Youth Today learned shortly after the scandal unfurled that Ciavarella had always been quick to lock youths up for low-level offenses.

But these paragraphs in the latest proffer, if backed up by testimony in court, really could solidify the civil suit’s argument that there was a profit motive involved in detention decisions:

Testimony at trial will establish that in approximately February 2003, one or more juvenile probation officers for Luzerne County were summoned to Mark Ciavarella Jr.’s office and put on the telephone with Michael Conahan. Michael Conahan expressed displeasure with delays in admissions of juvenile offenders to PA Child Care.Thereafter, weekly reports were often provided to Mark Ciavarella Jr. indicating the number of beds utilized at PA Child Care.On a number of occasions, probation officers developed non-custodial treatment plans for juvenile offenders which were rejected by Mark Ciavarella, Jr. in favor of custodial dispositions.

Testimony will establish that Mark Ciavarella Jr. and others acting at his behest, exerted pressure on Probation Office staff to recommend detention of juvenile offenders. On some occasions, probation officers were pressured to change recommendations of release to recommendations of detention.

Another paragraph refers to a 2001 visit in which Conahan spoke with Robert Powell, the lawyer and owner of the for-profit detention centers:

During this visit, Conahan indicated to Powell that Ciavarella was going to have to be compensated in connection with the facility. Powell understood Conahan to mean that Conahan and Ciavarella wanted money in exchange for Conahan’s assistance in closing the county-run detention facility and in exchange for Ciavarella making sure that the facility was kept full of juvenile offenders.

The brief filed on Tuesday names both Conahan and Ciavarella, and responds to motions filed in their defense. But a couple weeks ago, former president judge of Luzerne County Michael Conahan entered a new plea agreement. So assuming that plea still happens, Ciavarella faces a trial on the federal charges alone.  

Here are some links to some great coverage of the new developments by local media:

Transcript of a taped conversation among Conahan, Ciavarella and Powell in the Standard Speaker

Times-Leader’s Terrie Morgan-Besecker: Conahan ran the show.

***

Mercury News (California) reporter Karen de Sa says that Santa Clara may be the first place in America to set an age minimum (13) on placements to its juvenile detention center. And since she is probably the best youth and family services reporter in the business at the moment, we’re inclined to believe her.

The rule does allow for detention of youths 12 and under if “every effort possible” to avoid that decision has been exhausted. We hope the county never has to handle a case involving a 12-year-old accused of a homicide, but it will certainly be interesting to see how they handle that.

As de Sa reports, Santa Clara probation chief Sheila Mitchell surveyed other counties about the policy and heard of one that had an 11-year-old accused of murder on home electronic monitoring.

"They cringe every single moment, hoping nothing happens while that minor is out," Mitchell said of officials she spoke to in that county.

***New York State is under pressure to get its house in order on juvenile justice, with the threat of federal involvement hanging in the balance. You may have heard about this, because the Times has been all over it, and because New York City’s juvenile justice system alone handles the largest single youth population in the country.

In an op-ed published the paper earlier this month, two of New York City’s highest-ranking juvenile justice leaders hit the nail on the head as far as what this all comes down to in the state. The state will never have the resources to change things if all the existing juvenile facilities are allowed to remain open, said New York City Administration for Children’s Services Commissioner John Mattingly and Vinny Schiraldi, commissioner of the city’s Department of Probation.

The state-run facilities (at least some of them) were home to the abuses that got the state of New York in trouble with the Justice Department. Some need to stay open, because the state does need secure options, and Office of Family and Child Services has brought in experts such as Barry Krisberg and Mark Steward to assist with reform plans.

But many of the buildings need to close for two reasons:

1) Need. There are fewer New York youths committed by judges to secure confinement than in the past, and officials in New York City have made it clear they intend to keep even more juveniles inside the five boroughs (most of the state facilities are in far-flung necks of the woods).

2) Staffing costs. The facilities are staffed at the same level regardless of how many youths are actually held in them – a 100-bed  facility costs the state the same amount whether there is one kid in it or 100.

The bottom line is: New York is in dire straits economically, and it is also using a huge part of its juvenile justice budget to pay for facilities that it is barely using. There is only one good way that equation changes in the current economy, and that is for those facilities to end. The state cannot pay for all its current facilities AND expand alternatives. 

There are some in the New York JJ community who feel that OCFS boss Gladys Carrion has come up short on this issue by not productively engaging the major players involved in the facilities (unions and local politicians).

From afar, it is hard to believe there is no middle ground to be reached here, some way to help the employees who would lose jobs at these facilities into other lines of work. If anyone has a story about a jurisdiction that has successfully re-tasked or bought out JJ union employees as part of a reform effort, e-mail us. Would love to tell that one.

***Alex Busansky started this month as president of the Oakland, Calif.-based National Council on Crime and Delinquency . When the organization announced that it hired Busansky in March, it said he was taking over for Executive Vice President Chris Baird, “who has served as president on an interim basis since December.”

Eh, not so fast. JJ Today definitely was told by NCCD during the winter that Baird was the successor to former president Barry Krisberg, and that Baird would run the organization out of the Madison office with frequent trips to the Bay Area. Baird is now back in Madison full time.

Busansky joined NCCD from the Vera Institute of Justice; he ran the organization’s Washington, D.C. office. Busansky was a prosecutor for the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office from 1987 to 1998, which means he was in that office for a couple years with Bush-era OJJDP Administrator J. Robert Flores. We’ll have to ask him about that sometime.

***Here is a column by a Washington state juvenile judge about wanting to get to the underlying reasons for a juvenile’s delinquency; and here is an article out of Massachusetts about the opposite of wanting to do that.