For more than a decade, federal prosecutors in Pennsylvania claim that former Judge Mark Ciavarella unjustly sentenced juveniles as young as 10-years-old to hard time as part of a scheme to fatten his bank account. A jury agreed with the prosecution, sentencing the 61-year-old to 28 years in prison - essentially a life sentence - on corruption charges on Thursday.
The sentencing put an end to years of legal drama in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, which Ciavarella presided over as a Luzerne County judge. Ciavarella was accused of wrongfully incarcerating youths as part of a deal with the for-profit PA and Western PA Child juvenile detention centers that replaced some older state-run facilities. In February, Ciavarella was convicted in 12 of 39 counts of crimes such as racketeering, money laundering and tax evasion in connection with his acceptance of almost $1 million from Robert Mericle, the builder of the detention centers in question.
The sentence is considerably higher than the 87-month prison term that Ciavarella and his one-time co-defendant, Michael Conahan, had worked out in a plea agreement reached in January 2009. The deal was later rejected by U.S. District Judge Edwin Kosik after a hearing where Ciavarella initially apologized to all the people he had harmed, before back tracking and denying he had ever sent a child to a juvenile detention facility when it was not warranted.
Ciavarella reportedly attacked the government's case against him, accusing the prosecution of coining the phrase "kids for cash" and making false statements about him that portrayed him as the "anti-Christ," according to The Times Leader.
Ciavarella also denied that he deprived juveniles in his court room of their constitutional rights, although the prosecution argued the ex-judge has unjustly sentenced youths to months of hard time for minor crimes that were often far from felonious. Assistant U.S. Attorney Gordon Zubrod reportedly told Kosik that Ciaverella's refusal to accept responsibility for his actions is what warranted the longer prison sentence.
While he presided over juvenile court, Ciavarella reportedly sentenced children to detention facilities for crimes such as stealing a jar of nutmeg and creating a Web site mocking an assistant principal. Sandy Fonzo, whose 17-year-old son Edward was sentenced to months in private prison and a wilderness camp for possession of drug paraphernalia, berated Ciavarella after the guilty verdict. Fonzo said her son, who had no prior convictions at the time of his sentencing, never recovered from the trauma and took his own life in June 2010 at the age of 23.
After the hearing, Ciaverella's lawyer said he plans to appeal his client's conviction and prison sentence. He intends to argue the sentence violates the U.S. Constitution's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.
Last year, Conahan pleaded guilty to a racketeering charge in connection with the alleged scheme. He is currently awaiting sentencing.