Kids for Cash judge fines more than $200 million

Two former Pennsylvania judges who orchestrated a plan to send children to for-profit prisons in exchange for bribes have been ordered to pay more than $200 million to hundreds of people they victimized in one of the worst judicial scandals in US history fell.

U.S. District Judge Christopher Conner has awarded $106 million in compensatory damages and $100 million in punitive damages to nearly 300 people in a long-running civil case against the judges, writing that the plaintiffs are “the tragic human victims of a scandal of epic proportions”.

In what has become known as the Kids for Cash scandal, Judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan shut down a county-run juvenile detention center and accepted illegal payments totaling $2.8 million from the builder and co-owner of two for-profit lockups. Ciavarella, who presided over the juvenile court, pushed for a zero-tolerance policy that guaranteed large numbers of children would be sent to PA Childcare and its sister facility, Western PA Child Care.

Ciavarella ordered children as young as 8 years old, many of whom were first-time offenders, who were convicted of petty theft, jaywalking, truancy, smoking on school property, and other minor offenses. The judge often ordered juveniles he found delinquent to be immediately bound, handcuffed and taken away without giving them a chance to defend themselves or even say goodbye to their families.

“Ciavarella and Conahan have reneged on their oath and broken public trust,” Conner wrote Tuesday in his reasoning for the verdict. “Their cruel and despicable actions have victimized a vulnerable population of young people, many of whom suffered from emotional and mental health issues.”

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw out about 4,000 juvenile sentences involving more than 2,300 children after the scheme was exposed.

It’s unlikely the now-adult victims will see even a fraction of the damages, but a lawyer for the plaintiffs said it was an acknowledgment of the enormity of the disgraced judge’s crimes.

“It’s a huge victory,” said Marsha Levick, co-founder and chief attorney at the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center and attorney for the plaintiffs, on Wednesday. “Having an order from a federal court that recognizes the seriousness of what the judges did to these children in the midst of some of the most critical years of their childhood and development is hugely important to whether or not the money gets paid.”

Another plaintiff’s attorney, Sol Weiss, said he would start an investigation into the judges’ assets but didn’t think they had money to pay for a judgment.

Ciavarella, 72, is serving a 28-year sentence in Kentucky. Its expected release date is 2035.

Conahan, 70, was sentenced to more than 17 years in prison but was convicted released into house arrest in 2020 – with six years left – because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Conner ruled after hearing often emotional testimony last year from 282 people who appeared in Luzerne County Juvenile Court between 2003 and 2008 — 79 of whom were younger than 13 when Ciavarella sent them to juvenile detention — and 32 parents. “They reported his harsh and arbitrary manner, his contempt for due process, his exceptional harshness, and his cavalier and boorish behavior in the courtroom,” he wrote.

An unnamed child victim testified that Ciavarella “ruined my life” and “just didn’t let me get close to my future,” in Conner’s verdict.

Another plaintiff said: “I feel like I just sold out for no reason. As if everyone was just lining up to be sold.”

Another victim described shaking uncontrollably during a routine traffic stop — a result of the traumatizing effects of his childhood incarceration — and having to produce his mental health records in court to “explain why my behavior was so erratic.”

Some child victims who were part of the lawsuit when it began in 2009 have since died of drug overdoses or suicide, Conner said.

To calculate damages, the judge ruled that each plaintiff was entitled to a principle of $1,000 for each day of wrongful detention, and adjusted that amount based on the circumstances of each case. Substantial punitive damages are warranted because the disgraced judges inflicted “untold physical and emotional trauma” on children and youth, Conner wrote.

The claim for damages applies only to plaintiffs who have chosen to participate in the proceedings.

Other figures in the case were settled years ago, including the builder and owner of the private lockups and their companies, with payouts totaling about $25 million.

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