Even if you're not from Northeastern Pennsylvania you might have heard of this case. Ciavarella was one of two judges accused in a scheme known as "Kids for Cash." Allegedly, he and another judge had entered into a scheme to accept kickbacks from a local developer who built a new juvenile detention center. In exchange, Ciavarella and the other judge would see to it that his facility received a steady supply of customers.
Ciavarella developed a reputation as a strict juvenile judge. Very strict. Even minor infractions, for which other judges might impose a fine and a suspended sentence, resulted in lengthy custodial sentences from Ciavarella. Prosecutions were done in a swift, efficient manner, due to the frequent absence of any public defender to represent the juveniles. Parents would enter the court with their children, only to see them hauled off directly out of the court to begin serving months- or even years-long sentences at Ciavarella's friend's detention center.
This went on for years. There were rumblings about it, but nothing could be done - in Pennsylvania, judges are effectively the highest authorities in the land, answerable only to the Judicial Board of Review, an organization Ciavarella had already used to have a fellow judge who had complained about his practices removed from the Luzerne County bench. One juvenile, who had already served one sentence under Ciavarella, exploded with fear and rage when she found that she would have another hearing before him; she claimed that he had ruined her life, and threatened to kill him.
The case finally broke a few years ago, thanks to efforts from several fronts - former County Controller Steve Flood, a civil rights group from Philadelphia, and even a convicted mobster named Billy D'Elia. D'Elia reportedly sang like a canary to federal investigators on the matter of local businessman Louis DeNaples' alleged criminal activities - and when that investigation and any related convictions was suddenly and mysteriously thrown out by a Dauphin County judge, the feds allegedly went back to him and said words to the effect of, "Well, that was a waste of time. What else have you got?"
In the end Ciavarella and his co-conspirators were caught and brought to justice. Ciavarella's prosecutions ultimately had nothing to do with unjust convictions of juveniles; instead, he was convicted of conspiracy and
Meanwhile, justice of a sort was done to the juveniles convicted in his court. All of their convictions were thrown out, and any fines or other requirements of restitution were dismissed. The problem is, of course, that not every juvenile who appeared before Ciavarella was innocent. Many of them were guilty of the crimes for which they were convicted. So along with those juveniles who were unjustly prosecuted, and those who were unjustly sentenced to lengthy custodial terms, a third class of victims emerged: those people who had been victimized by juvenile criminals, and who had sought justice and restitution through prosecution.
But there's another, larger set of victims here.
Northeastern Pennsylvania has long enjoyed a well-deserved reputation as being a cesspool of corruption. From politicians who could easily send any of Chicago's most corrupt back to the Windy City for remedial courses, to judges who act like tin gods, to a broad and well-known network of organized crime figures, Northeastern Pennsylvania has it all. Many people wonder why businesses don't set up shop here: we have a large population with a tradition of hard work, family bonds, and loyalty, yet industries routinely shy away from setting up in the area. The reason, as told to me by several individuals with inside knowledge of the subject, is that few businesses are prepared to pay out the vast array of bribes and kickbacks expected from anyone who wants to do business in this area.
It's hard to fight against a reputation like that. So many people flee the area at the first possible opportunity. Northeastern Pennsylvania has many excellent colleges and universities, yet our population ranks among the lowest-educated in the country. This is not because people in this area are inherently dumb, or because they shy away from higher education; it is simply that the vast majority of those who attend institutes of higher learning take their degrees and flee to greener pastures with more job opportunities. With each departure, Northeastern Pennsylvania is diminished. And with each departure, the revised demographics creep incrementally closer to making the point for businesses who choose not to locate here not only because of the culture of corruption, but because of a lack of skilled workers.
There's a thing endemic to this area known as the "Coal Miner's Mentality." I've never been able to pin down what exactly that means, and I've started to think that it means whatever the speaker wants it to mean at the time the words are spoken. To me, the mentality could be summed up as this: The people - the "coal miners" - recognize that the system, the region, whatever, is completely corrupt, unjust, and unfair, and is slowly destroying them. And so they get together and get blind drunk to rail against the injustice of it all. And the next day, they wake up and put on their hard hats and go back to working under the same corrupt, unjust, unfair, and destructive system, because they have no choice, because they believe that nothing that they ever do will make a damned bit of difference.
Everybody knew that something was very wrong in the juvenile court system in Luzerne County. But everyone accepted it as one of those things that we just have to live with, about which nothing can be done. It took a federal investigation to actually bring some sort of justice to the area. But it came at a price. It came at the price of making Luzerne County, and all of Northeastern Pennsylvania, look like the cesspool of corruption and criminality that many of us, and many outside the area, believe it to be. What Ciavarella did made that corruption into something tangible, taking it from the realm of the abstract to the realm of the very, very real.
Ciavarella made Northeastern Pennsylvania look as bad as everyone thinks it is. He reinforced the biases and prejudices that people have about this area. He may have helped to dissuade any businesses from even considering setting up shop in and bringing jobs to NEPA for the foreseeable future.
The juveniles that Ciavarella convicted falsely were victims. Those juveniles that Ciavarella sentenced unjustly were victims. The people who saw justice undone and restitutions unmade by criminals whose cases were thrown out because of Ciavarella were victims.
And everyone else living in Northeastern Pennsylvania was a victim of Ciavarella, too. When will we get our justice?
Title reference: The resurrected Eric Draven's last words to the criminal Tin-Tin in "The Crow."
The Lu Lac Political Letter: The LuLac Edition #1710, August 11th, 2011