Weekly Notes: New funding from OJJDP; Scathing report on Luzerne scandal; PROMISE Act goes viral; and more

Print More

***A couple of new solicitations from OJJDP:

Group Mentoring Research and Evaluation Program: To evaluate the effectiveness of group mentoring programs at Boys & Girls Clubs around the country. Why only BGCA programs? It’s unclear, but the organization has received more money for mentoring than anyone else.   

Deadline: June 28.

Amount: One award, $2 million over three years.

National Training and Technical Assistance Center for Youth in Custody: Establishment of a center that would assist facilities with accentuating the rehabilitative priorities of the juvenile justice system. It’s worth noting that the solicitation includes assistance to adult facilities that house juveniles.

Deadline: June 29

Amount: One award, $500,000, renewable for up to three years.

National Girls Institute: Establish a website, provide technical assistance on serving girls in the system, and help develop standards for that work.

Deadline: June 30

Amount: Could be up to $1.5 million over three years; dependent on the availability of funding past 2010 though.

Evaluations of Girls' Delinquency Programs: To measure the impact of programs around the country that target JJ-involved girls, which is something that a number of advocates felt should have been done by the Girls Study Group.

Deadline: July 8

Amount: Multiple grants, between $200,000 and $400,000.

***Luzerne Update! The Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice, created by Pennsylvania law to investigate the circumstances that led to the Luzerne County scandal, issued its final report today. Quite a doozy. Here is the closing paragraph of the report, which distills the essence of what the commission found after months of research and interviews:

We understand that our recommendations offer little protection against determined greed, avarice and criminality. But based on the testimony presented at our hearings, we also understand that many otherwise good and responsible people simply lost their way and chose accommodation over principle, and passivity over vigilance. To the extent that the commission’s work will lead others to reaffirm their commitment to the cause of justice, and to encourage others to take action necessary to improve and reform our legal system, then as a Commonwealth we will have redeemed ourselves in some small way for the myriad failings that undermined the rule of law.

The report details why thousands of adjudications were overturned and expunged and the effect on the victims of serious crimes for which no one is being punished – an area that hasn’t been much covered in the press. It also gives explicit information about the depth of corruption throughout Luzerne’s judicial system. The commission members are clearly embarrassed by the level of unchecked malfeasance in Luzerne County as they lay out the full picture of how that corruption led to such disregard for constitutional rights.

The 68-page report also includes new accounts of misdeeds by the two judges, Michael Conahan and Mark Ciavarella, who were at the heart of the scandal. There is an account of a 16-year-old girl, an honor student, who made a vulgar hand motion to a police office during a custody dispute between her parents and her sister, and then ended up in placement for EIGHT MONTHS.

There was the “fine court” assembled by Ciavarella, in which juveniles as young as 10 who had not paid fines associated with their cases were made to face the court with no prosecutor or defender around (just a probation officer). If they nor their parents could pay the fine,  the youth was sent to detention. So youths who owed the county about $400 were punished with a week or more in detention, which costs the county between $100 and $200 per day.

There was the anonymous complaint filed with Pennsylvania Judicial Conduct Board that identified 33 “glaring violations of ethics which are occurring at the Luzerne County Courthouse.” The complaint wasn’t looked at for seven months, was tabled by the board and never brought up again.  There was never any investigation of any of the allegations.  investigation.

The report discloses that Frank Vita – Conahan’s brother-in-law – served as the court-selected psychologist and was paid about $900,000 to evaluate court-involved youths. Former assistant defender Jonathan Ursiak recalled that Vita’s recommendations very frequently included placement.

There are the words of Public Defender Basil Russin about why his office never really felt the need to question Ciavarella’s judicial philosophy: “Everybody loved it….Schools got rid of all their problems. Parents…who had problems with the kid at home, they called the police. Police said, you want us to take him away? Sure. I can’t control the kid anymore. Away the kid would go…the DA loved it because they were getting convictions.”

Russin also said with limited staff and resources, he generally dedicated half of one defender’s time to juvenile court because Ciavarella just moved through the docket like a machine. And since so many youths were improperly waiving counsel (also covered in the report), his office did not even have to participate in a lot of the juvenile cases before the court.

The report does an excellent job narrating how one judge’s zero-tolerance philosophy, coupled with the apathy of other officers of the court including defenders, prosecutors and probation officers, set the table for one of the most shameful court scandals in United States history.

The report finishes with a litany of recommendations to improve a range of court and social service functions including probation, prosecutor monitoring and judicial conduct review. Perhaps the most important recommendation: classify all juveniles as “indigent,” create a state funding stream that would provide money to counties for juvenile defenders, and establish a Center for Juvenile Defense Excellence.

The report also recognizes local press and especially the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, for exposing the shameful operations of the court, even before the federal investigation that led to the charges against the two judges.  

***Youth Today already posted a story on the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Graham v Florida, and our subscribers can look for a more in-depth look at its ramifications in our June issue, which comes out next week. But here’s yet one more point we think should be made about the aftermath of the decision.

There are 37 states that have life without parole sentences for certain juveniles and now must replace with new sentencing provisions. The court mandated that juveniles have a “meaningful opportunity” for release.  

JJ Today has contacted many people, all of whom were willing to pontificate on what they think would be the best way for states to change those laws. Suggestions include: review sentences after inmates turn 30, review them after 10 years of the sentence, and try all juveniles in juvenile court.

Not one person wished to discuss what they felt would be the worst revision they could tolerate.  As Terrance Graham’s attorney Bryan Gowdy put it, there is a point at which a really high term of years or wait for parole would be the “functional equivalent” of a life sentence.

The lack of open discussion about what is tolerable and what is a “functional equivalent” really could affect the 129 inmates doing LWOP for juvenile non-homicides at the moment. California has four of them. It used to have five, before one inmate successfully appealed his LWOP conviction last year and won the chance to be resentenced. The judge gave him four consecutive 40-year sentences as a replacement.

This is not to say the notion of a hearing after 10 years is a bad one; it makes sense to many people. But the reality is that at least some of the 37 states who will make revisions have no intention of replacing LWOP sentences with a system that could, conceivably, place an inmate on the path to release after 10 years.

Without a public discussion about what might be an acceptable maximum threshold, it is left to  state legislatures either to figure it out or follow the standard set by the first state to act.

If that state is Florida, which has 77 inmates to resentence, advocates for early review might be very disappointed with what follows. Attorney General Bill McCollum has already said he expects Graham to “be resentenced to a very long term in prison.” Even before the Graham ruling, one Florida insider told us, there was a noticeable increase in very high term-of-years sentences in Duval County (Jacksonville).

***Other news on the Graham ruling:

-According to a letter filed with the Supreme Court this week by Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal that there are not six federal inmates doing LWOP for juvenile non-homicides. That was the figure cited by the Bureau of Prisons, but Katyal’s letter said that each of the six got the LWOP sentence pursuant to crimes that included homicide, or a series of crimes that included acts committed as an adult.

-Former Solicitor General and current SCOTUS nominee Elena Kagan was taken to task on the Graham case by Kent Scheidegger, who writes the Crime and Consequences blog for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation. His beef: Kagan not defending the federal law permitting LWOP if six of its inmates were sentenced to life without parole as juveniles.

-Research mentioned in the Graham ruling said South Carolina only had one juvenile LWOP inmate. But the state has found two more, reports The State’s  Noelle Phillips.

***Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) went viral with his push to sell the Youth PROMISE Act last month. Scott released a YouTube video about the act that features celebrities such as actress Robin Wright and hip-hop icon Russell Simmons. Simmons also blogged about the value of the PROMISE Act on the Huffington Post.

***The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Models for Change initiative released “Toward Developmentally Appropriate Practice: A Juvenile Court Training Curriculum” this week. Got a nice little plug from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, who circulated news of the release on its JuvJust listserv. It is going to be interesting to see whether a financial relationship grows between OJJDP and the MacArthur foundation and Annie E. Casey Foundation (home of the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative).

***Congrats to Campaign for Youth Justice media guru Eric Solomon, who won the Golden Thinker Award from the North American Precis Syndicate. NAPS specializes in distributing press releases and media-ready content to news services, and Solomon’s “Justice and Safety” was picked up by 191 broadcasters. So for all the advocates who would love to get their material picked up, check out Solomon’s piece as an example of what works.