Breaking News:

‘Cash for Kids’ Judge Sentenced to 28 Years in Prison

Forbes

Sandy Fonzo of Wilkes-Barre, right, confronts former Luzerne County Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. , as he leaves the federal courthouse in Scranton Pa. after being convicted of racketeering on Friday, Feb. 18, 2011 in Scranton, Pa.

View photo

.
Ciavarella

Former Pennsylvania juvenile court judge, Mark Ciavarella, has been sentenced to 28 years in prison.

Ciavarella was found guilty of trading convictions for cash, and unjustly sentencing youth to to detention centers whose owners paid him millions in bribe money.

A federal judge tossed a plea deal that would have limited the sentence to 87 months. The frightening story of the deeply corrupt judge made headlines when Ciavarella was confronted by Sandy Fonzo outside the Pennsylvania courthouse where he had been convicted. Ciavarella had sentenced Fonzo’s 17-year-old son to six months in jail despite having no criminal record on charges of possession of drug paraphernalia, a charge that often results in only a fine for first time offenders, and especially for minors.

According to Fonzo, her son, who had no prior record, was never able to recover and eventually took his own life.

"He (Ciavarella) killed his spirit," Fonzo said at the time, "He crushed him, and he didn't help him." Fonzo said her son was full of resentment and pent-up anger after being sent to the detention center.

The story takes on greater horror when you learn about the levels of sexual abuse present in the prison system, especially in juvenile detention centers where inmates are even more vulnerable to abusive guards:

Across the country, 12.1 percent of kids questioned in the BJS survey said that they’d been sexually abused at their current facility during the preceding year. That’s nearly one in eight, or approximately 3,220, out of the 26,550 who were eligible to participate. The survey, however, was only given at large facilities that held young people who had been “adjudicated”—i.e., found by a court to have committed an offense—for at least ninety days, which is more restrictive than it may sound. In total, according to the most recent data, there are nearly 93,000 kids in juvenile detention on any given day. 19 Although we can’t assume that 12.1 percent of the larger number were sexually abused—many kids not covered by the survey are held for short periods of time, or in small facilities where rates of abuse are somewhat lower—we can say confidently that the BJS’s 3,220 figure represents only a small fraction of the children sexually abused in detention every year.

What sort of kids get locked up in the first place? Only 34 percent of those in juvenile detention are there for violent crimes. (More than 200,000 youth are also tried as adults in the US every year, and on any given day approximately 8,500 kids under eighteen are confined in adult prisons and jails. Although probably at greater risk of sexual abuse than any other detained population, they haven’t yet been surveyed by the BJS.) According to the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, which was itself created by PREA, more than 20 percent of those in juvenile detention were confined for technical offenses such as violating probation, or for “status offenses” like missing curfews, truancy, or running away—often from violence and abuse at home. (“These kids have been raped their whole lives,” said a former officer from the TYC’s Brownwood unit. 20) Many suffer from mental illness, substance abuse, and learning disabilities.

Any judge who would condemn children to these odds in order to line their pockets deserves the inside of a prison cell. The federal judge was right to toss out the plea deal. Ciavarella doesn’t deserve a bargain. He didn’t give any leniency to the kids he sold.

I’m not much for retributive justice, but a part of me likes to think that he’s getting what’s coming to him now that he’s on the inside of the American prison system looking out.

View Comments (64)