From Behind Bars

More Lessons from Luzerne County, PA

By Mumia Abu-Jamal

Recently, a piece was produced on the scandal in Pennsylvania’s Luzerne County, where two judges pleaded guilty for playing their parts in a kickback scheme that netted them over two-and-a-half-million bucks.

The beneficiaries of their hustle were private juvenile prison builders, owners and investors (oh—and themselves, of course.)

The losers were hundreds of Luzerne County’s children, kids who were treated like cattle, as they were shuffled through so-called “courts”—without counsel—where so-called “judges” sent them away from their parents, their siblings, and their fellow students (for acts as benign as passing notes, or sending fresh emails) to private prisons for profit!

While the judges pleaded guilty to relatively minor charges, some other officials at the court, from county clerk to deputy court administrator have followed the judges in plea agreements.

What is utterly remarkable is how easily and effortlessly these judges did their thing, in stark violation of the state’s Juvenile Act, with virtual impunity, for almost a decade!

One must wonder; where were the lawyers looking out for the interests of these kids? Or were they so cowed, so shocked, so shaken by a “long train of abuses” that they were silenced by the ugliness of corruption, and the aura of fear?

Pennsylvania law allegedly provides protections for children, including the right to counsel (even if they couldn’t afford it,) and a legal presumption that all kids should remain with their families. As a general rule, a child shouldn’t have been detained unless she posed a danger to others, their property, or herself. There are exceptions to this rule, and they were whether the child was charged with committing major felonies, like robbery, rape or murder.

There was apparently another exception—whether or not Presiding Judge Mark Ciavarella or Senior Judge Michael Conahan wanted to make some quick bucks.

They were subject to a higher law—get money!

What the Luzerne County scandal has shown us is that what happens in many courts is both a business and a mystery. For millions of Americans, the law is a puzzle written in Latin, one unable to decode.

It also shows us that sometimes the criminal is sitting on the bench, wearing a black robe., March 2, 2009