Judges Sent Hundreds Of Teens To Private Detention Centers In Exchange For Millions

Two Pennsylvania judges were sued in federal court this past week for allegedly taking $2.6 million in kickbacks from private juvenile detention facilities. In exchange, they sentenced hundreds of youths to the centers over the past 5 years. One of the judges, Mark Ciavarella, sent 1 out of 4 defendants to the centers, compared to a statewide rate of 1 in 10.

Judge Michael Conahan is accused of securing the contracts from PA Child Care‘s former owner, Robert Powell, while Judge Ciavarella did the dirty work of keeping the private facilities well-stocked with new wards.

With Judge Conahan serving as president judge in control of the budget and Judge Ciavarella overseeing the juvenile courts, they set the kickback scheme in motion in December 2002, the authorities said.

They shut down the county-run juvenile detention center, arguing that it was in poor condition, the authorities said, and maintained that the county had no choice but to send detained juveniles to the newly built private detention centers.

Prosecutors say the judges tried to conceal the kickbacks as payments to a company they control in Florida.

Both men pleaded guilty to fraud on Thursday, and if the plea is accepted by the court, they’ll spend 87 months in prison, be forced to resign from the bench and the bar, and lose their pension benefits.

Separately, plaintiffs in the federal suits are also suing the former and current owners of PA Child Care, as well as the owner of the construction company that built the detention centers. The feds, on the other hand, have said they’re not targeting PA child Care in their corruption probe, which has been under new ownership since last summer.

Update: Chatterboxwriting points out that the local paper for the area has an entire section devoted to covering the scandal.

“Judges Plead Guilty in Scheme to Jail Youths for Profit” [New York Times]
“2 Pa. judges sued in $2.6M kickback scheme” [Associated Press]


Edit Your Comment

  1. Michael Smith says:

    this is so despicable that words fail me.

  2. raisitup says:


  3. mgy says:

    I’m as egalitarian as it gets…but something keeps whispering to me in my ear that we should hold judges and other members of the institution of the law to slightly higher standards, and thus, slightly harsher punishments when things like this come up.

    • Eyebrows McGee (now with double the baby!) says:

      @mgy: As a lawyer, I absolutely agree. This kind of thing makes me absolutely FURIOUS.

      • Chris Walters says:

        @Eyebrows McGee: So it’s okay that I think they should serve at least a year for each victim who was fraudulently put away, consecutively, with no chance of parole? Because that’s how I feel this morning. Last night I was thinking of meaner punishments, but I’ve cooled off a little.

        • B says:

          @Chris Walters: That seems fair, I was thinking the judges (and the people running the facilities) should be charged with false imprisonment and kidnapping.

        • Eyebrows McGee (now with double the baby!) says:

          @Chris Walters: I don’t want to sound maudlin, but I love our legal system and I believe in what it stands for. It’s flawed as all get out, but it’s among the best in the world and in so many ways it’s the expression of our best instincts to fairness, justice, protection of the weak, etc.

          So these ABSOLUTE JACKHOLES piss me off because not only did they DESTROY CHILDREN’S LIVES (which alone is worth some serious ass-kickery), but they shit on the system they were sworn to serve. They used it to play God with people’s lives, and they did it for money. That’s sick, that’s wrong, and I’d start the punishment by letting everyone in Pennsylvania with a JD kick them in the testicles. Consecutively.

          • HogwartsAlum says:

            It seems like in every other issue of Reader’s Digest there is a “That’s Outrageous!” piece or a story on corrupt judges. They have all this power and they can’t be touched. That isn’t right. If they are corrupt, they need to be removed IMMEDIATELY. It seems like in a lot of cases, it takes a giant crowbar and 50,000 sumo wrestlers to get their fat asses off the bench!

            Don’t bend over for the soap, suckholes!!!

            Eyebrows McGee: I can’t wait to use “absolute jackholes” in conversation. That was great! LOL!!

          • bwcbwc says:

            @Eyebrows McGee: In this context, JD is a little ambiguous: Juris Doctor or Juvenile Detention? Either group would have a legitimate grievance.

            • Chris Walters says:

              @bwcbwc: Yeah, I thought “JD” meant “juvenile delinquent,” so then I was imagining a line of juvies and paralegals taking turns kicking the judges. It was weird.

          • the_wiggle says:

            @Eyebrows McGee: yes. move from thence to @Chris Walters: idea

        • Viajero says:

          @Chris Walters: Exactly. 87 months ain’t jack. White-collar crime has victims, yet the criminals are treated with kid gloves. Muy fucked-up.

    • godlyfrog says:

      @mgy: The actions of these judges defraud not only the victims, but the entire court. Their punishments should be automatically doubled.

    • samurailynn says:

      @mgy: I think 7 years in prison is a pretty hefty sentence. I would hope that they are not eligible for parole during that time though. Also, I would hope that they are no longer eligible to hold any public office.

    • Andrew Medina says:

      @mgy: I’ve always preferred the method of punishment the Yakuza use for such matters.

      Sit them down, and force them to cut the pinky finger off their dominant hand at gun point.

    • heltoupee says:

      @mgy: I’d think finding someone that they’d sentenced to jail, and sticking them in a cell with that guy would suffice.

  4. Davan says:

    absolute power corrupts absolutely.
    I would like to also see the law come down on the child care facilities with a vengance

    • chatterboxwriting says:

      @Davan: The child care facilities aren’t even being prosecuted (I’m from the county this happened in, and everyone is all shook up about it). These judges have been corrupt for years – they refused to lay off people they had hired (outside of normal hiring guidelines), so there was a lawsuit to freeze hiring and get back within the 2009 budget. Civiarella hired his son-in-law as a probation officer and also gave others raises with no input from other judges or court personnel.

      They needed to cut 2.1 million from the budget, and as soon as Conahan and Civiarella got ousted, they were able to cut 2.8 million by furloughing at least ten probation officers (including the son-in-law) and reducing the salaries of three people who had been given raises without approval.

      We’re going to be seeing the effects of this for a long time in our county.

      • Davan says:

        @chatterboxwriting: I know, thats why I would like to see it. I’m sick and tired of people getting away with this crap. The world will never be fair.. but I wonder sometimes what it would be like if it were

  5. Trai_Dep says:

    “Anything the government can do, private enterprise can do better”

    Well, they did increase headcount, so… Win?!

  6. Irashtar says:

    This kind of corruption should include serving all the time they caused.

  7. Possinator says:

    What wrong doings did the construction company perform?

    • chatterboxwriting says:

      @Possinator: People from the construction company were the ones who arranged the kickbacks with the judges. Our local paper has a whole section of articles related to the investigation if you want to read more details.

      Luzerne County Judges

      • RichasB says:

        @chatterboxwriting: Shouldn’t they be tried and found guilty of racketeering?

        • chatterboxwriting says:

          @RichasB: I don’t know how it’s all going to go down. You can read all the articles archived at the link I posted above. There was an article published today that says the juvenile centers themselves are “not a target” of the investigation. The attorney and contractor involved are going to be prosecuted, I believe.

  8. savdavid says:

    This makes my heart sink in despair. Money can buy anyone it appears.

  9. Joeb5 says:

    Make the judges pay $750 per to day to each youths for each day they where in lockup.

    Also they make them pay back any other courts cost they got.

    Will youths get there rap sheets 100% cleaned up after this?

    As I think that this makes there cases be come mistrials.

  10. linlu says:

    Wth do you expect from the mantra to privatize government functions. Time and time again, this happens. Blackwater, Halliburton, KBR, Peanut Corp of America (they ordered the tests, not the FDA). Does anyone else need more convincing that the Republican Agenda is simply bad for America? I don’t want to hear about government waste, fraud and abuse, when you have multi-million dollar corporate CEOs with an utter lack of accountability being bailed out by our tax dollars.

    • buckfutt says:


      Both of these judges are DEMOCRATS. No mention of that by the NY Times–how surprising. NOT.

    • rbb says:

      @linlu: Your slam on the Republican party clearly shows your bias and ignorance. Both judges are democrats. [newsbusters.org]

      • Pixelantes Anonymous says:

        @rbb: linlu wasn’t referring to the judges’ political affiliation, but the Republican agenda that lets the marketplace solve all the problems in the world. This is yet another example of how well that works.

        • buckfutt says:

          @Pixelantes Anonymous:

          Great, let’s put government bureaucrats in charge of everything. That worked out really well for the Soviets.

          Oh, wait…

        • Yossarian says:

          @Pixelantes Anonymous: As opposed to the sterling record of governments’ solutions to problems?

          It’s a little disingenuous to try to ignore the political affiliation of the judges when one wants to place blame for the situation based on political affiliation. You want to blame the “Republican agenda” for a Democratic governor’s basically putting a US Senate seat up for bid, too? Or for Democratic congressmen getting sweetheart deals from Countrywide?

          There are plenty of criminals of all political affiliations in all economic systems. Your juvenile analysis just isn’t very persuasive.

        • Saboth says:

          @Pixelantes Anonymous:
          Exactly…allowing low taxes, low government monitoring of corporations doesnt create more jobs or help the economy…all it ends up doing is lining the pockets of the rich while hurting the people and the environment.

    • hi says:

      @linlu: Everything you said was right on except you think it was a Rebublican agenda. The fact they were Dems means nothing also. I wrote this earlier today on another story but there is no difference between dem and rep, they are two sides of the same coin. Step outside their box of deceit and you’ll get a clearer picture of the overal agenda.

  11. darthsodomizer says:

    Probably the first of many of these stories. I am sure that if it’s going on in PA, it is going on somewhere else.

  12. Anonymous says:


    There are two seperate papers in Wilkes-Barre. The Citizens Voice actually broke the story initially.


    The paper you’re linking is generally re-hashing the other paper’s journalism.

  13. Aphex242 says:

    More examples of the prison industry ruining modern America.

    • RichasB says:

      @aphex242: Crooks punishing crooks >:o

      I would love to stop paying taxes because I don’t support the bailout but then I would get arrested by the crooks taking my money to give to the crooked banks.
      Welcome to America! Now grab your ankles!

  14. buckfutt says:

    Hey, NY Times, let’s play Name That Party! Based on this story, which political party did these two elected judges belong to? What’s that? No mention of it? Why, I’m shocked.

    I’ll give you all a hint: it doesn’t begin with an “R”.

    • SybilDisobedience says:

      @buckfutt: I think they didn’t mention it because it’s not supposed to be relevant. Yes, we all know it’s silly to think that judges don’t have political bias, but the fact is they’re supposed to be impartial on the bench, so most don’t emphasize their political leanings when campaigning or otherwise. That may be why the story didn’t focus on it.

      • buckfutt says:


        If you think the party affiliation of these two crooks wouldn’t have been identified in the very first line if they were Republicans, you haven’t been reading the New York Times for very long.

    • RichasB says:

      @buckfutt: It doesn’t matter what political party they belong to, it’s irrelevant and you’re just childishly trying to make democrats look bad. Pfft, they don’t help BTW.

      Libertarian, baby!

    • Nighthawke says:

      @buckfutt: It’s called Retards that are corrupted by money. It happens on both sides of the party, so no need to be pointing fingers at either one. Just nail the asses that do it.

  15. JollyJumjuck says:

    Hopefully these two end up in pound-in-the-ass prison instead of luxury prison.

  16. deadspork says:

    Oh, thank god they’re Democrats. I knew all republicans were angels and all democrats were crooks. Oh wait, maybe it’s the other way around. Oh wait, MAYBE both sides have dishonest people AND both sides have honest people? Could that be possible?!

    Or we could point fingers at political parties instead of where they belong: at the damn judges. These guys are sleazeballs I don’t care what party they belong to. They are greedy people, no matter what affiliation.

  17. mythago says:

    @Eyebrows McGee: I think it’s horrible that you would exclude licensed paralegals from the ball-kicking fest.

    See, not only did these pantloads send kids to juvie, they planned ahead. They destroyed the existing, public-run juvenile detention system and replaced it with an expensive private system just so they could put this scheme in place.

  18. RichasB says:

    Maybe I’m at the harsher end of the spectrum, maybe I watch too many old movies, but perhaps we should bring back Public Hangings? However, only for politicians and etc. I mean, these judges ruined the lives of several youths and they get to live? They should be put to death in a shameful manner and stripped of any honor. The same should be done to Senators and that Chicago Governor found taking bribes. Bury them face down in shame.

    Yes, I know, it sounds extremely barbaric, but I will guarantee you that Political corruption would be near to non existent in America if it meant a short drop and a sudden stop.

    • TheSpatulaOfLove says:


      When did Chicago become a state? Growing up there, I agree it’s vastly different than the rest of the state, and I’m sure Mr. Daley would love his own state sovereignty, but I didn’t think it would ever happen!


      Back on track – I agree with your rant, with one caveat – you better be damned right before you go as far as public hangings. At the very least, I would much rather see public stockades and charging $1 per rotten tomato to help pay back victims of crimes committed. See? THAT is a win/win!

      • the_wiggle says:

        @TheSpatulaOfLove: 50 cent poo as well

      • heltoupee says:

        @TheSpatulaOfLove: Chicagoland has always been it’s own state :). Just to the north of ‘Southern Illinois’, which is everything south of I-80 :). I’m from “Southern” Illinois BTW. Live in a college town, and have a good laugh at the kids from the ‘burbs that think Joliet is “Southern”.

        Good ol’ Rob B. took money from everyone, and made a laughingstock of IL government. (In a long line of illustrious governors, right Mr. Ryan?)

        Seems that politicians are operating under the old addage “There is no such thing as bad publicity.” I hope these two catch it in the teeth. Hard.

    • hi says:

      @RichasB: Only problem with that is corrupt judges who sentence innocent people to jail time .. or juvenile detention centers. Yeh judges would never do that. :)

  19. JiminyChristmas says:

    In case people aren’t aware of the fact: the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, in both per capita figures as well as total number of inmates. We jail people at a higher rate than freedom-loving countries like Cuba, Russia, or China.

    This is due in no small part to the many parties who have a financial interest in locking up as many people as possible for as long as possible: everyone from for-profit prison operators to prison guard unions. Likewise, it’s a sad comment on our society that many rural towns count on state or federal prisons as their primary employer.

    • bwcbwc says:

      @JiminyChristmas: Speaking of systems that are designed to self-perpetuate by manufacturing reasons to punish people: read “The Jigsaw Man”, an SF story by Larry Niven in the Dangerous Visions anthology (also in other short story collections). In that story, the shortage of organs for transplantation combines with laws allowing the harvesting the organs of criminals convicted of capital offenses has made even minor offenses worthy of the death penalty. So even a speeding ticket will get you executed on conviction in order to supply the organ banks.

    • quizmasterchris says:

      @JiminyChristmas: Even sicker: the counties want prisons b/c that also means bigger census figures, which can mean more govt money to the county.

      So you have these ‘citizens’ who can’t vote, make less than minimum wage, have no actual community contact, etc etc, and they count as county residents for the pork barrel!

  20. shinseiromeo says:

    chatterboxwriting, it’s good to know someone local frequents consumerist. I am shocked to see this story here, as I am in Luzerne County as well. I personally know the Ciavarella family and am not surprised at all. Growing up, people were afraid of Mark as a judge. Juveniles knew that if he was the sentencing judge in a case, they were screwed, that he gave harsher punishments than any other judge in the county.

  21. savdavid says:

    See what “privatizing” traditional services does? Where I live on Wilmington Island, GA the fire service is privatized and it you don’t pay them 250 bucks a year they will watch your home burn down. Social services like police protection, fire protection, education, road construction and improvements, jails, water treatment, sewage is socialized and works pretty damn good. Guess what would happen if you had to pay for all these services piece by piece instead of through one tax? Corruption (more than you see now), monopolization and the rich getting the benefits and the middle class and poor shut out unless they pay up. We need community minded spirit, not “me-first-screw-you” mentality.

  22. ageshin says:

    Ah another fine example of the state and privet enterprise working hand in to provide for the best mix of profit for all concerned, except for the young inmates. I remember when these ‘camps’ were first started. They claimed that they would take bad kids and turn them into fine militarized citizens. As I remember it several of these kids died, in the proses, but what’s a couple of broken eggs in the grand scheme of thins. The big privet jails are also hard up for prisoners, maby this should be looked into.

  23. lestat730 says:

    Nice to see some corrupt judges will do some time…

  24. Anonymous says:

    There is an angle to this story that both Consumerist the people posting comments have missed. The person who owns the Western Pennsylvania Child Care Facility is Greg Zappala. According to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette: “No charges have been filed against Mr. Zappala or his former business partner, attorney Robert J. Powell. Mr. Zappala is the brother of Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. and son of former state Supreme Court Justice Stephen A. Zappala Sr.” Now why hasn’t Zappala been charged with any crime? Could it be that he is ahem… politically well connected? Read about it here in this article in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette:


    Here’s another quote from the same article:

    “A million dollars in consulting fees, a swordfishing trip, college basketball tickets and a $3,500 suit are among $1.26 million in expenses being questioned in a state audit of a Butler County juvenile detention center owned by Pittsburgh businessman Greg Zappala.”

    Greg Zappala’s name seems to show up in yet other shady deals – take for example how a Pennsylvania school district got ripped off in a Shady debt refinancing scheme:


    Somebody commented earlier that people like these should get the death penalty. The problem with that is that capital punishment just a one time occurance. I think a better punishment would involve recurring public humiliation. Something like a monthly public naked waterboarding treatment would be more appropriate here.

  25. Peter Lomtevas says:

    Kids are the new oil.

    This means that to masquerade a fraud is to invoke the needs of “kids”.