The story is incredible: Thousands of children wrongfully sentenced to juvenile detention centers, many without legal representation and after cursory hearings, by two rogue judges in northern Pennsylvania who received millions of dollars in bribes from the private institutions’ owners.
The scheme, which reportedly took place between 2003 and 2008, became national news starting in 2009 for its brazenness and cruelty, made even more shocking by the deadly silence of public defenders, prosecutors, and other court staff who did nothing to report the abuse by Judges Mark A. Ciavarella and Michael T. Conahan.
William Ecenbarger, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist, has brought this stunning story to book form in a deeply researched, compelling tale, appropriately titled “Kids for Cash: Two Judges, Thousands of Children and a $2.8 Million Kickback Scheme.”
He details the corrupt culture that allowed Ciavarella and Conahan to turn the court into their cash cow, providing multiple examples of children’s lives gone awry. Ecenbarger also makes their example a case study in how the nation’s juvenile-justice system — too often harsh and largely closed to public scrutiny — is failing.
“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,’’ he writes.
Ecenbarger’s book is composed of short, largely chronological chapters that periodically step back to offer cultural, legal, or historical background. A narrative approach that followed a few families’ stories from beginning to end could have provided the reader a more fluid experience. Some of the exposition feels divorced from how the issues affected a specific case.
Ecenbarger opens with the tale of Matthew, a slender seventh-grader who had argued with his mother’s boyfriend. The mother, according to Ecenbarger, called the police and pressed charges, claiming he had thrown a steak at her beau. Matthew, who had no prior record, was brought before Ciavarella and denied the accusation, but was summarily ordered into custody.
“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,” Ecenbarger wrote. “His mouth went cottony with fear, and he started crying. ”
Matthew’s father fought to free him, but the boy spent 48 days in custody, suffering emotional problems long after from his experience, Ecenbarger said.
In the next chapters, Ecenbarger describes the region’s history of corruption reaching back to the 1800s with the discovery of coal, enriching “coal barons” and later organized crime.
He introduces us to the judges and their accomplices, two developers who schemed to build a private detention center to house county delinquents. The judges got a “finder’s fee” of $997,600 for the project, opening the floodgates for kickbacks that came to them as they filled the institution with children.
Despite concerns in the courthouse, nobody spoke up, partly because it was seeded with “political cronies and relatives,’’ Ecenbarger said.
The book ends with details of Ciavarella’s trial watched by parents who had been tormented by the court. He denied violating children’s rights while Conahan pleaded guilty and apologized. Each was sentenced in 2011 to jail — Conahan to 17½ years and Ciavarella to 28.
It’s clear that the problem wasn’t just the judges. Ecenbarger turns a strong lens onto the system that allowed their scam to fester.