Two Pennsylvania judges who orchestrated a scheme to send children to for-profit jails in exchange for kickbacks were ordered to pay more than $200 million to hundreds of children who fell victim to their crimes.
U.S. District Judge Christopher Conner awarded $106 million in compensatory damages and $100 million in punitive damages to nearly 300 plaintiffs in a long-running civil suit against the judges.
In what came to be known as the kids-for-cash scandal, Mark Ciavarella and another judge, Michael Conahan, shut down a county-run juvenile detention center and accepted $2.8 million in illegal payments from the builder and co-owner of two for-profit lockups. Ciavarella, who presided over juvenile court, pushed a zero-tolerance policy that guaranteed large numbers of kids would be sent to PA Child Care and its sister facility, Western PA Child Care.
Ciavarella ordered children as young as 8 to detention, many of them first-time offenders convicted of petty theft and other minor crimes. The judge often ordered youths he had found delinquent to be immediately shackled, handcuffed and taken away without giving them a chance to say goodbye to their families.
“Ciavarella and Conahan abandoned their oath and breached the public trust,” Conner wrote Tuesday in his explanation of the damages award. “Their cruel and despicable actions victimized a vulnerable population of young people, many of whom were suffering from emotional issues and mental health concerns.”
Ciavarella “ruled with breathtaking arrogance and an unfathomable disregard of due process,” Conner wrote.
Ciavarella was known for a “zero-tolerance” approach to juveniles, and his sentencing decisions were often capricious. One 16-year-old in his courtroom for driving the wrong way down a one-way street was sentenced to 11 months in prison, because that was the number of buttons the offender had on her shirt, according to Conner’s decision. Another juvenile who went in for a release hearing was instead sentenced to an additional eight months because the teen picked the wrong sports team.
Several of the youths who were sentenced by Ciavarella or Conahan have since died of drug overdoses or suicide, Conner wrote.
After the scheme was uncovered, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw out 4,000 juvenile convictions entered between 2003 and 2008.
Ciavarella is serving a 28-year prison sentence. Conahan, who was sentenced to more than 17 years in prison, was released to home confinement in 2020 — with six years left on his sentence — because of the coronavirus pandemic.