Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Jailing Kids for Cash Ignored

by Clarence Page
Middletown Journal
Tuesday, March 03, 2009

While many Americans, including me, were caught up in the fury around the New York Post's weird "dead chimpanzee cartoon," remarkably less attention was paid to a far more serious scandal in Pennsylvania coal country: a multimillion-dollar scheme to jail kids for cash.

The tale of two Luzerne County judges shows what can go terribly wrong with for-profit prisons and detention centers.

Judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan pleaded guilty to sentencing thousands of children to jail, often without any access to a lawyer, in a kickback scheme that brought them a reported $2.6 million over seven years.

The two received a commission for every day they sent a child to private detention centers run by Pennsylvania Child Care and a sister prison-management company, Western Pennsylvania Child Care.

As many as 2,000 kids are reported to have been incarcerated out of 5,000 who were sentenced while the scheme was in operation. They included Jamie Quinn, a 14-year-old Scranton girl who was sent to juvenile jail for nine months. Her offense? Slapping a friend who, she claims, slapped her first. Hardly a hardened criminal.

The case cracked open after Hillary Transue, 15, was sent away for three months for posting a Web site parody of an assistant principal at her school. As in many other cases, her mother had been persuaded to waive the girl's right to a lawyer. Her hearing before Judge Ciavarella lasted less than two minutes.

After the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center took her case to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the FBI began an investigation. The two judges entering guilty-plea agreements in February for tax evasion and wire fraud. Three separate class-action lawsuits have been filed on behalf of the imprisoned children.

The two Luzerne County judges are only the tip of a scandalous iceberg that has been floating around for juvenile detention systems for years. Critics have long complained that private prisons create perverse incentives to throw nonviolent offenders in jail who might be handled better and more cheaply in community-based alternative programs.

Kids are doubly vulnerable, an Associated Press survey found last year. Lax oversight and soft standards for tracking abuse make it hard to tell exactly how many youngsters have been assaulted or neglected.

An AP survey of state public and privately-contracted juvenile correction agencies found more than 13,000 claims of physical, sexual and emotional abuse by staff members from Jan. 1, 2004 to the end of 2007, although only 1,343 of those claims of abuse — including 143 claims of sexual abuse — were confirmed by various authorities.

A big part of the problem in dealing with troubled youths is that some will make up stories. Some who suffer real abuse are pressured not to report it — and when they do, too often they are not believed.

All of which makes it very important that we pay attention to the people we taxpayers pay to deal with kids who get into serious trouble. For a lot of kids who have substance abuse problems, severe educational needs and mental health traumas, juvenile facilities offer hope of last resort.

At least, that's what they're supposed to do. For the Pennsylvania judges, juvenile correction facilities became a cash cow. Systems that pay contractors at per diem rates, according to how may kids they warehouse, invite further abuse.

That's why I was appalled that the confessions of the two judges were overshadowed completely by other news such as, for example, the New York Post's chimpanzee cartoon. Civil rights activists, among other folks, thought it was a crude mockery of President Obama as an ape. It sparked national protests and an apology from the Post and Rupert Murdoch, head of the newspaper's owner, NewsCorp, who insisted it was only a lampoon of the economic stimulus bill.

But where, I wondered, is the outrage over a system that encouraged two Pennsylvania judges to jail kids for cash? Since the kids were a racial mix in a predominately white area of the state, I wondered: When the issue is more about class than race, do civil rights leaders stop caring about kids?

Or maybe, like all of us, it's easier for them to get excited about race when it helps us to avoid dealing with the far more vexing issue of economic inequality.

Clarence Page writes for the Chicago Tribune. E-mail address: cpage@tribune.com

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