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Kids for Cash scandal goes to heart of ‘confronting injustice’

Monday, August 18, 2014

In 2009, the federal justice system expunged the records of thousands of minors, each of whom were sentenced to juvenile detention centers by two corrupt judges who received millions in kickbacks in Luzerne County.

The aftermath of this scandal — now known as “Kids for Cash” — led to juvenile justice reforms largely in part to the advocacy demonstrated by the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia led by executive director Robert Schwartz, who is coming to Mercyhurst University in mid-September to share his story.

Schwartz will speak on campus Thursday, Sept. 18, from 2-3:30 p.m. in Taylor Little Theatre, presenting: Kids for Cash: Injustice in Juvenile Justice.

Additionally, Mercyhurst Institute for Arts and Culture (MIAC) will present the documentary based on the Kids for Cash scandal in a separate event Sunday, Sept. 14, at 2 p.m. in Taylor Little Theatre.

The film, which features Schwartz and the Juvenile Law Center, also includes testimony from minors and families involved, as well as interviews with the convicted former judges. The film was released in February 2014. 

After the documentary, Bob Blakely, chief juvenile probation officer of Erie County, will discuss the events that occurred in Luzerne County and explain progressive reforms in the Pennsylvania juvenile justice system.

The premise of both the film and Schwartz’s presentation focuses on the 2007 investigation of “improper sentencing” of minors in eastern Pennsylvania by President Judge of the Court Mark Ciavarella and Senior Judge Michael Conahan. Both judges were accused of accepting “finder’s fees” from two private, for-profit juvenile detention facilities, totaling $2.6 million dollars.

Investigators examined over 3,000 cases between 2003-2008 where juveniles were sentenced to detention centers for minor offenses such as shoplifting and trespassing. Investigators discovered that over 50 percent of the minors who appeared before the judges lacked proper legal representation or none at all.

Both judges, as well as several accomplices, were sentenced to prison time, fines and ordered to pay restitution for their crimes. Ciavarella was sentenced on Aug. 11, 2011, to 28 years in federal prison, and Conahan to 17.5 years in prison on Sept. 23, 2011. As a result, more than 2,251 juveniles had their criminal records expunged, and the federal government has since established laws to safeguard minors who appear in court.

Schwartz is coming to campus at the request of Peter Benekos, Ph.D., professor of criminal justice, who met him during the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences Conference early this year.

“As soon as Bob heard about Mercyhurst University’s 2014-15 academic theme: ‘Confronting Injustice,’ he thought telling his story on campus would be perfect,” said Benekos. “His interest in coming, I believe, is that he feels this important message should be shared. He has been a lifelong advocate of children’s rights, especially bringing injustices like this one to light.”

This year’s academic theme was selected as a way to reflect and address injustice in the world, its causes, history and manifestations in society, as well as the powerful resources that exist to confront it. The Kids for Cash documentary viewing and presentation are one of the first events on campus that addresses the academic theme.

“It’s a good message for students: If there is an injustice, you can make a difference, and the truth will prevail,” said Benekos.

The Robert Schwartz presentation is co-sponsored by the Mercyhurst Civic Institute and the criminal justice department.

For more information, contact Peter Benekos at 814-824-2328 or e-mail pbenekos@mercyhurst.edu.