In the writer-director's new film, Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts' characters befriend a younger, free-spirited couple.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist William Ecenbarger tells a story that seems to be pulled right from Charles Dickens: a judge sends young people to a detention center, in exchange for kickbacks from the facility’s owner.
The judge was Mark Ciavarella and he presided over a courtroom in Luzerne County, Pa. He sent thousands of kids to detention centers for minor offenses – things that used to result in a three-day suspension from class.
Luzerne County’s president judge, Michael Conahan, was also implicated in the “Kids for Cash” scandal, for using his budgetary discretion to stop funding the county’s public youth detention facility. He also agreed to generate costs that could be billed to taxpayers in exchange for kickbacks.
Prosecutors say the two judges secretly received more than $2.6 million in kickbacks. In 2011, Ciavarella was sentenced to 28 years in federal prison and Conahan was sentenced to 17.5 years.
Ecenbarger covered the case for The Philadelphia Inquirer. His new book, “Kids for Cash: Two Judges, Thousands of Children, and a $2.6 Million Kickback Scheme,” details not only the case, but the stories of children whose lives were forever changed by the courtroom corruption.
Matthew, Angelia, Lisa, and Charlie
At the age of thirteen, Matthew was a quiet boy whose benign, gentle features seemed to demand that a violin be placed in his hands. But inside, the seventh-grader was strung taut between his mother and his father, who had been in a protracted custody battle over him since he was ten. Four days after Thanksgiving 2004, Matthew got into a disagreement with his mother’s boyfriend. There was some shoving and angry words, but it wasn’t much of a contest. Matthew stood four foot three and weighed eighty-two pounds. His adversary was six foot two and weighed about 210 pounds.
No one was injured in the momentary scuffle. Nevertheless, his mother called the police, and an officer came to Matthew’s bedroom, pushed him against the wall, and jabbed a finger at him: “You think you’re tough, but you’re not. I’ve dealt with people like you before, and it’s no big deal.” Then his mother told the officer that Matthew had thrown a piece of steak at her beau, and she wanted to file assault charges against her son.
A month later, three days after Christmas, Matthew was in the dark-paneled Courtroom four of the Luzerne County Courthouse. He was accompanied by his father and the lawyer his father had retained. Matthew had been assured that even if he was found guilty, his punishment would be light because he had no prior record of offenses. The boy knew he had done nothing wrong, and he believed the justice system would work and treat him fairly. Even so, Matthew’s senses were on full alert because he was standing before Judge Mark A. Ciavarella, who had already spoken at Matthew’s school three times and warned students that he would be tough on any child who came to his courtroom.
The lawyer told Ciavarella that the incident was part of an ongoing dispute between Matthew’s parents, and he asked that Matthew be placed in his father’s custody. But his mother and her boyfriend testified that Matthew had thrown the steak. Matthew kept shifting his feet and pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose. Ciavarella doodled absently on a scratch pad during the testimony and seemed to regard the entire proceeding as an intrusion. Finally, the judge turned to Matthew and asked if he threw the piece of meat. Matthew, his voice squeaky with adolescence, said he had not. Words of explanation formed in his throat, but Ciavarella cut him off and said, “Remanded!” The word hung in the air for a few seconds. Matthew, bewildered, didn’t even know what it meant.
Suddenly, two officers, each grabbing an elbow, were escorting all eighty-two pounds of him to an adjacent holding room. He was saucer-eyed with disbelief as they patted him down for weapons. Then they were putting handcuffs on his wrists and shackles on his ankles. Both sets of restraints were attached to a belt around his waist. His mouth went cottony with fear, and he started crying. The restraints were too tight and little darts of pain shot at his wrists and ankles. He begged his captors to loosen the cuffs and the shackles, and they finally did. Then he shuffled out to a waiting van with another boy and two girls, and was driven away. He wondered if this was really happening to him. He reached out and touched the wire mesh barrier in the van. It was real.
About twenty minutes later, the van drove into what appeared to be a garage. But then the door went down behind the vehicle and locked as another door opened in front and the van drove forward and stopped. Because his father was a prison guard and had told him about them, Matthew knew this was a sally port, an entry point to a secure facility that was once a feature of many medieval castles. In modern times, they are used for prisons. Matthew had been taken to PA Child Care, a privately owned, for-profit juvenile detention facility in Pittston, Pennsylvania, that had been opened just two years earlier. It was a state-of-the-art “juvie,” but to Matthew it was an ugly jail.
Matthew, his face frozen into a fright mask, was hustled inside, where a woman at a desk took all of his personal items, including his wallet, keys, and a religious medal that said, “I am a Catholic. Please Call a Priest.” He was handed gray sweatpants, a gray sweatshirt, and black plastic flip-flops, and directed to a room to change his clothes. He was ordered to take a shower and wash his hair with an anti-lice shampoo. That night he lay on his bed and stared at the ceiling. Tears rolled down his temples and into his ears.
Ciavarella had sent Matthew to PA Child Care to await a psychological evaluation. In the interim, Matthew went to classes, which he found very easy. They used stapled photocopies of textbooks rather than the books themselves. Fridays they watched movies. Time creaked along, the days passing by like centuries. Finally, on the sixteenth day, Matthew met with the psychologist for about an hour, and the therapist’s eventual conclusion was that Mattthew was depressed. “Who wouldn’t be?” Matthew asked plaintively years later. Because he blamed her for his predicament, Matthew steadfastly refused to speak to his mother. County probation officers told Matthew he would not be released until he did.
But a week after Matthew’s incarceration, his father launched an all-out, frantic effort to get his son out of PA Child Care. He tried to contact his local congressman, state legislators, county officials, the office of governor Ed Rendell, the state Judicial Conduct board—anyone who might help. He knocked on doors, wrote letters, made phone calls, and sent emails. He also got in touch with the Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader, which eventually ran a story outlining Matthew’s plight. Five days after the article appeared, Matthew got another hearing before Ciavarella. He was brought to the courthouse in shackles, and as he got off the elevator a woman waiting to step on exclaimed in amazement, “Look at that little kid! What could he have done?” Matthew was released and placed on probation. He had been deprived of his freedom for forty-eight days.
During his seven weeks at PA Child Care, Matthew saw the movie Napoleon Dynamite three times. He came to hate it. When he was not in class, he was confined to his room. He was not allowed to lay on his bed during the day and instead had to sit on a backless stool at a metal desk. “Being in jail is a terrible thing,” he said. “I was locked up like an animal.”
Matthew returned to the seventh grade and worked hard to get his grades back up to the B level. Many of his former friends avoided him. “Their mothers didn’t want their sons hanging around with a juvenile delinquent,” he recalled bitterly. He graduated from high school, but seven years after his confinement he still jousted with depression regularly. He wants to be an airline pilot, but he is unable to take the first step toward higher education. “I picture myself in college,” he says, closing his eyes with the imagining. “But I just can’t do it.” At the age of twenty, he is estranged from his mother and lives with his father. He works full-time in a restaurant, making pizzas and serving takeout pasta. There is a lost look about him, as though he has been permanently startled.
When Angelia was fourteen, she and a friend scrawled “Vote for Michael Jackson” on five stop signs with a black felt marker. There had been a spate of stop-sign graffiti all over her hometown, and police decided to charge the girls with all of the offenses—eighty-six counts of vandalism and defacing public property. When Angelia’s mother protested that she was only responsible for a few stop signs, she said the officer told her that unless her daughter pled guilty to all of the charges, “he’d make sure she’d see Judge Ciavarella on a day Penn State lost the previous weekend because Judge Ciavarella sends all juveniles to jail if Penn State loses.”
Penn State’s football season was over by the time Angelia and her friend got into Ciavarella’s courtroom, but most of the twenty-minute hearing was taken up by discussions among the judge, court officials, and local police about the national football league playoffs. The previous weekend, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Philadelphia Eagles had won divisional playoff games, and there was talk of an all-Pennsylvania Super Bowl.
Ciavarella seemed to resent being distracted from the gridiron speculations, and he ignored conflicting testimony from an alleged eyewitness who described Angelia as having short black hair. Angelia’s long blonde hair reached down to her waist. Angelia and her co-defendant admitted vandalizing five of the signs, but said they had nothing to do with the other eighty-one. Nevertheless, the judge said that even though it had not been proven that the girls had defaced all eighty-six stops signs, he was going to use them as an example to deter others. He ordered them shackled and taken away by juvenile probation officers.
Angelia’s mother protested that her daughter was epileptic and subject to seizures under stress, and she shouted to the probation officers leading her away, “she can’t go without her medication!” but by this time Ciavarella was part of a rising tide of repartee over the Super Bowl, and he ignored the frantic mother. At PA Child Care, Angelia was placed in a locked room with a bunk and a stool. It felt like a prison. Her mother contacted officials at PA Child Care and warned them Angelia’s seizures were brought on by stress. “Her stress level is too high, and I know she’s going to have a seizure,” she said.
On her second night at the detention center, Angelia’s muscles suddenly contracted and she lost consciousness. Her body violently alternated between relaxation and rigidity. The savage muscle contractions lasted about two minutes. When she regained consciousness, she had a throbbing headache. Angelia had had a grand mal seizure. She had banged her head against the cement wall next to her bed so hard that she cracked her dental braces.
The next day she was before Ciavarella again, shackled, handcuffed, and weak from her trauma. As her mother held her upright, she remembered Ciavarella saying, “There’s people with worse illnesses in jail. Don’t think I won’t throw you back.” He then released Angelia from detention and placed her under house arrest. However, despite the fact that Angelia had been an A student, Ciavarella refused to allow her to return to her school for three months as part of her punishment. She managed to finish her freshman year with Bs and Cs. but throughout high school Angelia suffered from her brief encounter with Judge Ciavarella.
“She rarely left the house in her teen years,” her mother said.
“I had to force her to go to her own prom just to have some kind of high school experiences. She never went to football games, never went to anything. And I feel it was from what happened that one time, the very first time she got into trouble. You know, she should maybe have gotten a little bit of punishment, but not an ax thrown at her. It’s taken a lot of years for her to come out of that shell. And I blame him for that.”
Angelia said she believed her youthful experience changed her outlook permanently: “I’ve learned that people we put in power just aren’t always the ones we should trust. Judge Ciavarella, I thought maybe he could see I wasn’t a bad kid. Yes, I did deserve a slap on the wrist. Yes, I did deserve to be punished. Did I deserve what I got? No. Was I punished too harshly? Yes. I just think I was punished too harshly, and I just don’t think it was very fair.”
Nevertheless, eight years after her encounter with Ciavarella, she was about to graduate from college and planned to pursue a doctorate in Sociology so she could teach at the college level.
In November 2003, some members of the literary club at Crest-Wood High School decided to pull a prank designed to get one of them summoned to the principal’s office. It was an asinine idea—the kind of thing adolescents sometimes do. Sixteen-year old Lisa penned a note that said: “I like to shoot, shoot, shoooot young men. I will tell you now of my Evil Plans. On Nov. 26, I will bring my father’s 5 PM semiautomatic handgun to school. I will shoot the kneecaps of innocent young men.” Lisa signed the name of another club member. The note was left on a table for easy discovery. It was senseless and insensitive, foolish and foolhardy—especially for someone with a 3.8 grade point average who had never been in trouble before. Lisa was quickly identified as the true author, and by the time she got to the principal’s office, she realized she had “done something really stupid.” She was contrite, wept, and even offered to get on the school public address system to apologize. Her mother and her grandmother came in, and it was agreed that she should be suspended for three days.
Lisa was ashamed—it was the first time she was ever disciplined in school—but she thought that would be the end of it. Who would actually take her threat seriously? Her father lived in another state, no one else at her home owned a handgun, and there’s no such thing as a 5 PM semiautomatic. Lisa was an unlikely terrorist. She often carried spiders and insects outside her house and released them, rather than killing them inside. She didn’t believe she had the right to kill anything.
But the next morning she was seated at the dining room table studying her geometry textbook when the doorbell rang. Only her grandfather was home, and he was upstairs, so Lisa went to the door. She was surprised to see two uniformed police officers, who said they were taking her into custody. They stepped into the kitchen, handcuffed her, and as her grandfather stood by helplessly, began to escort her outside. It was cold, and she asked to wear her jacket. Because she was handcuffed, she had to wear it like a blanket. They perp walked her out to the cruiser and ducked her head as they guided her into the backseat. Her eyes brimmed with tears, and then spilled over when she passed her high school. Her friends were inside, sitting in class. She was in the back of a police car in handcuffs.
Lisa was taken to PA Child Care to await a hearing before Ciavarella. But it was the day before Thanksgiving, and the court had closed until the following Monday. She was locked in a room, behind a dead-bolted metal door, for the night. Lisa lay down on her cot and sank into her thoughts. She wasn’t afraid. She wasn’t angry. She was just lonely. She questioned her self-worth. What did everyone think of her? Would her friends be her friends when she returned to school next week? Did everyone hate her? Did they laugh when they heard what happened to her? The next day she had a cafeteria-style turkey dinner with canned carrots and peas. She sat next to a girl named Michelle who the previous night had tried to carve her name into her forearm with a nail file but had succeeded only as far as “MICH.”
After five days in PA Child Care, Lisa, shackled and handcuffed, was taken to the courthouse for a hearing before Ciavarella on charges of making “terroristic threats.” Did she write that note, Ciavarella asked. Lisa said she did. She started to explain that she never intended to harm anyone, but the judge silenced her with an admonitory finger. Her attorney told the judge Lisa’s note was “a bad prank” and asked the she be placed on probation. Ciavarella interrupted him and sentenced Lisa to an indefinite term at a wilderness camp for girls. The entire proceeding took less than five minutes.
At the camp, some of the girls were tough, inner-city teenagers convicted of violent crimes. But others were there for stealing their father’s credit card to buy clothes and for unintentionally bringing a pocketknife to school. At one point while among a group of girls cleaning portable toilets, she began singing the orphanage song from the Broadway musical Annie:
“It’s a hard-knock life, for us! It’s a hard-knock life, for us!”
Before long, most of the other girls had joined in.
“Steada treated, we get tricked. stead kisses, we get kicked!”
Nine days after Lisa arrived in detention, Ciavarella ordered her released following appeals from school authorities and recommendations from camp counselors. She had missed two weeks of school, and she had a criminal record. She was ashamed and embarrassed in school. She withdrew from activities. She felt guilty. Some of her former friends and their parents said she deserved what she got and should have been kept in detention for months. She lost her driver’s license for a year, and when she got it back the insurance company raised her rates because of her record. She didn’t apply for a job if the applications asked for arrests and convictions.
But Lisa graduated from high school, went to college, got a teaching job after earning her BA degree, and got married. Then she and her new husband applied to the Peace Corps. Lisa’s application was flagged and put on hold. Sixteen months and many questions later, the couple was finally approved, and in September 2011 they began their assignment in Mozambique. Lisa is still embarrassed about her ill-advised misstep at the age of sixteen.
Charlie had a passion for motors and vehicles, and when he spotted a used motorbike for sale in the summer of 2006, he wanted it. It was a bright red Greenline “beach cruiser.” It was only $60. At fifteen, Charlie was a troubled, anxious boy. “We thought it might cheer him up,” his mother recalled, “so we bought it for him. He was overjoyed.” like his father, Charlie had considerable mechanical aptitude, and he alternately rode and tinkered with his new possession.
But several weeks later, two police officers knocked on the door of his house. Charlie was home alone and thought he was in trouble for riding the Greenline without a helmet. Instead, the officer told him the bike was stolen. They said they’d be back later. When Charlie’s parents came home that night, the police returned. The adults tried to explain that they thought they had legitimately purchased the bike, but all three of them were arrested. Later, the charges were dropped against the parents, but Charlie was ordered to appear before Ciavarella.
Charlie thought he would just explain what happened to the judge, and his problems would be over. Probation officers advised his parents that he did not need an attorney. But as he and his mother sat on folding chairs outside the courtroom awaiting his hearing, his mother noticed a disturbing pattern: Parents were going into Judge Ciavarella’s courtroom with their children, but only the parents were coming out. A low-watt anxiety surged through her. Each time the door opened, his mother heard a jangling sound. She didn’t realize it just then, but it was the sound of shackles. Concern turned to panic when they got before the judge and found out Charlie had been charged with receiving stolen merchandise—a felony.
Charlie, a shy, pudgy, bespectacled youth, stood there with his hands in his pockets and fear on his face for the entire three-minute hearing. Even though he had had no prior run-ins with law enforcement authorities, Ciavarella adjudicated him a juvenile delinquent. Charlie was neither advised of his right to a lawyer, told of the consequences of pleading guilty, nor given a chance to explain how he had innocently come to own the motorbike. If Charlie had been an adult, he would have received a sentence of either probation or a maximum of one month in prison under state sentencing guidelines. But as a juvenile, Charlie received an indeterminate sentence. As it turned out, he would be locked up for most of the next three years for a crime he did not commit.
Before he even understood what had happened to him, the boy was being shackled and handcuffed. His mother reached out to comfort him, but he was hustled away from her and out of the courtroom to a crowded holding cell with other children. Indeed, there were so many other youths in the room that all of the benches were filled and Charlie was obliged to stand against the wall. Later, a sheriff ’s van sliced through an angular, sleeting rain and took everyone to PA Child Care. A psychological evaluation there concluded that Charlie suffered from anxiety and depression. His parents were charged $250 for the evaluation. When they asked for a second opinion from a physician covered by their medical insurance, they were turned down by county authorities.
After six weeks in PA Child Care, Charlie was sent to a “boot camp” designed to teach wayward adolescents discipline. He was placed in a cabin with boys who had been convicted of drug dealing and gun-related offenses. Here his mental state worsened. He couldn’t sleep, and he said he didn’t speak to anyone for three months. The camp doctor placed him on the mood stabilizer Seroquel, and he showed some improvement. Three months later, he was released and returned to high school. But he had fallen behind his junior-year classmates, and his grades dropped. He was shunned as a troublemaker and delinquent by many of his former friends. When his infant niece was killed in a tragic apartment fire, his anxiety and depression returned. He began using drugs and missing appointments with his probation officer. Soon he was again before Ciavarella, who sent him to back to PA Child Care. He would be in and out of detention facilities for three years. When he was finally released, he sent a plaintive Twitter message to his friends: “i am about to go home from being in placement for 3 years for something i didn’t do i can’t wait.”
Charlie got out of the juvenile justice system when he turned eighteen, but as an adult, he has had more trouble with the law, including receiving stolen goods and using fraudulent credit cards.
Matthew’s, Angelia’s, Lisa’s, and Charlie’s cases were not deviant, aberrant miscarriages of justice. They were part of a routine and systematic form of child abuse that took place in the juvenile court of Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, between 2003 and 2008. During that time, several thousand young defendants were needlessly handcuffed, shackled, and summarily dispatched to incarceration that typically lasted between one and three months. After the briefest of hearings, parents who had accompanied their children to court and expected to return home with them, left instead stunned and bewildered, alone.
Seldom was Ciavarella’s tough-love justice tempered with mercy. No matter how young the defendants, no matter how clean their records, no matter how cringing their hesitancy, no matter how wobbly-voiced or jelly-kneed they appeared in his courtroom, most left shuffling in their shackles to vans that took them away.
While these proceedings were closed to the public, they were witnessed by assistant district attorneys, public defenders, other lawyers, probation officials, and court officers, including clerks and messengers. Often police officers, teachers, and school administrators were also present. The air was heavy with unspoken words and unacknowledged guilt, yet for six years, through thousands of hearings, no one spoke out effectively in opposition.
In failing to do so, public servants, educators, and others charged with protecting our children served as enablers for one of the worst judicial scandals in American history. For as he meted out these injustices, Judge Ciavarella and his behind-the-scenes co-conspirator, Judge Michael T. Conahan, were being paid millions of dollars by the owners of PA Child Care. in exchange, the judges provided the owners a steady stream of inmates. Children became commodities in a kids-for-cash scheme.
The scandal became public when federal prosecutors held a news conference on January 26, 2009, detailing the kickback scheme that had allowed two judges to wrongfully imprison thousands of children for the judge’s own financial benefit. Initially, however, there was little negative reaction in northeastern Pennsylvania among community leaders—educators, prosecutors, public defenders, probation officers, or even the Luzerne County bar association. Indeed, two administrators at the Wilkes-Barre area Vocational Technical school wrote a letter to the editor of the Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader praising Ciavarella. “His dedication to working with our students created a bond of trust and confidence among him, the students and the staff,” the administrators wrote. “Students who had personal experiences with the judge have expressed gratitude for his involvement in their lives. His concern for their well-being after adjudication is what makes him so special. He has made a tremendous difference in the school’s educational process.”
But as the breadth and nature of the kids-for-cash wrongdoing spread beyond the immediate area, other voices rose. Robert Schwartz, executive director of the nonprofit Juvenile Law Center, which was instrumental in bringing the scheme to an end, said, “Children in Luzerne County were treated as commodities, with a for-profit provider as purchaser, and the juvenile court as supplier. The Luzerne County juvenile court was in the business of inventory control. This was done publicly and without comment from other professionals in the room. This is hard to believe.”
Within weeks, the international press took notice. The Sunday Times of London ran a 750-word article headlined, “Judges Took Bribes to Jail Teenagers,” calling it “one of America’s most sinister judicial scandals of recent times.” The Economist magazine headlined its piece “The Lowest of the Low.” In Sydney, The Australian proclaimed, “Judges Paid off to Keep Jails Full,” and the New Zealand Herald announced, “U.S. Judges Jailed Kids for Cash.”
In early March, the New York Times ran a front-page article by Ian Urbina, which began: “Things were different in the Luzerne County juvenile courtroom, and everyone knew it. Proceedings on average took less than two minutes. Detention center workers were told in advance how many juveniles to expect at the end of each day—even before hearings to determine their innocence or guilt. Lawyers told families not to bother hiring them. They would not be allowed to speak anyway.”
How could two judges conspire over five years to deprive thousands of children of their most basic constitutional rights and send them off in shackles to detention centers in which these judges had personal financial interests?
There were many ingredients in the Luzerne County judicial scandal—official evil, greed, opportunity, public indifference, secrecy, and place: Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, has a history of corruption, nepotism, and mob-related violence dating back decades, so perhaps it should not be a surprise that the juvenile justice system there was corrupt as well.
Although the Luzerne County kids-for-cash scandal resulted from a unique confluence of factors, it was allowed to thrive in part because of a dangerous, nationwide opacity in America’s juvenile justice system. Matthew, Angelia, Lisa, and Charlie were among the approximately one hundred thousand American children who, on any given day, are either confined to correctional facilities or held in detention centers awaiting trial or placement.
Fewer than one-third of these youths are being detained for serious, violent crimes. Many of the rest, like Matthew, Angelia, Lisa, and Charlie, are incarcerated for nonviolent infractions, including behaviors common among adolescents in our society.
Some of them, like Angelia and Lisa, rebound and begin productive lives. Others, like Matthew, suffer prolonged emotional stress, long-term psychological damage, truncated educations and careers, and develop deep disdain for a justice system that failed them. And many of them, like Charlie, become adult criminals. The lack of transparency at the court level as well as inside juvenile detention centers—particularly those run as private, for-profit companies—is a recipe for abuse and an environment in which scandals such as Luzerne County can be perpetrated out of public sight. Rather than affording extra protections to the most vulnerable among us, we have set up a system of justice for children in this country that too often criminalizes standard adolescent behavior, treats adolescents more harshly than if they were adults committing similar infractions, and is not open to public scrutiny.
The egregious miscarriage that took place in Judge Ciavarella’s courtroom offers a chilling and telling caricature of a system prone to abuse, yet nonetheless entrusted with the care of millions of American children.
Excerpted from the book KIDS FOR CASH by William Ecenbarger. Copyright © 2012 by William Ecenbarger. Reprinted with permission of The New Press.