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Ex-judge given 28-year sentence

Was convicted in ‘kids for cash’ scandal in Pa.

By Michael Rubinkam
Associated Press / August 12, 2011

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SCRANTON, Pa. - A former judge was ordered yesterday to spend nearly three decades in prison for his role in a massive bribery scandal that prompted the state’s high court to toss thousands of juvenile convictions and left lasting scars on the children who appeared in his courtroom and their hapless families.

Mark Ciavarella Jr., former Luzerne County judge, was sentenced to 28 years in federal prison for taking a $1 million bribe from the builder of a pair of juvenile detention centers in a case that became known as “kids for cash.’’

Ciavarella, who denied locking up youths for money, had no reaction as the sentence was announced. From the gallery, which was crowded with family members of some of the children he incarcerated, someone shouted “Woo hoo!’’

After the scandal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned about 4,000 convictions issued by Ciavarella between 2003 and 2008, saying he violated the constitutional rights of the juveniles, including the right to legal counsel and the right to intelligently enter a plea.

Ciavarella, 61, was tried and convicted of racketeering this year. His attorneys had asked for a reasonable sentence in court papers, saying, in effect, that he had been punished enough.

“The media attention to this matter has exceeded coverage given to many and almost all capital murders, and despite protestation, he will forever be unjustly branded as the ‘Kids for Cash’ judge,’’ their sentencing memo said.

Al Flora, Ciavarella’s lawyer, called the sentence harsher than expected. The former judge surrendered immediately but it was not known where he would serve his time. He plans to appeal both his conviction and sentence.

Ciavarella, in a 15-minute speech before the sentence was handed down, apologized to his family, the Luzerne County bar, and the community - and to those juveniles who appeared before him in his court. He called himself a hypocrite who failed to practice what he preached.

“I blame no one but myself for what happened,’’ he said.

Then, in an extraordinary turnabout, Ciavarella attacked the government’s case as well as the conclusions of the state Supreme Court and the Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice, a state panel that investigated the scandal. Both said Ciavarella engaged in wholesale rights violations over a period of many years.

Ciavarella denied it. “I did everything I was obligated to do protect these children’s rights,’’ he said.

He also criticized Assistant US Attorney Gordon Zubrod for referring to the case as “kids for cash,’’ saying it sank his reputation. (Zubrod said outside court that he doesn’t remember ever calling it that.)

In court, Zubrod said Ciavarella had “verbally abused and cruelly mocked children he sent away after violating their rights.’’

Federal prosecutors accused Ciavarella and a second judge, Michael Conahan, of taking more than $2 million in bribes from Robert Mericle, the builder of the PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care detention centers, and of extorting hundreds of thousands of dollars from Robert Powell, co-owner of the facilities.

Ciavarella, known for his harsh and autocratic courtroom demeanor, pocketed the cash while filling the beds of the private lockups with children as young as 10, many of them first-time offenders convicted of petty theft and other minor crimes.

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