Pennsylvania "Kids for Cash" conspiracy

People Magazine coverage, April 2009


Two Pennsylvania judges pled guilty in February 2009 to accepting $2.6 million in kickbacks to send teenagers to two private detention centers. In a scheme stretching over six years, the judges closed a public detention center, secured contracts for the companies, and then were paid to send thousands of teenagers to the private centers on minor or questionable charges.



Judges Mark A. Ciavarella Jr., and Michael T. Conahan pled guilty in federal court to wire fraud and income tax fraud for taking more than $2.6 million in kickbacks to send up to 6,500 teenagers to youth detention centers run by PA Child Care LLC and Western PA Child Care, both subsidiaries of Mid-Atlantic Youth Services Corp. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed thousands of juvenile convictions and, in January 2010, ruled that the youths cannot be retried.

According to a class-action lawsuit filed in 2009, the two judges, who controlled the Luzerne County court system as top administrative judges, conspired with several private companies as follows:

Beginning in 2002, the judges orchestrated "placement guarantee agreements" with PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care worth tens of millions of dollars in business from Lucerne County to house juvenile offenders in newly built detention centers.  Mericle Construction, Inc., builder of the private facilities, also bribed the judges to facilitate construction, according to the lawsuit.

Later in 2002, the two judges de-funded the county's public detention center, claiming it was in poor condition. State and local health and welfare departments determined the public facility was safe and up to standards, but it was closed down.

The case has attracted national and international attention to the issue of judges' corruption, but very little scrutiny of the privatized detention centers, which remain open as of early 2010. No charges have been filed against the company executives involved in the scandal, but the investigation is continuing.  The executives and seven companies, as well as the judges, are defendants in a class-action lawsuit filed by the Juvenile Law Center in 2009 on behalf of 140 named plaintiffs.

In 2009, the Pennsylvania legislature established the Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice to investigate the "Kids for Cash" scandal and make changes to keep it from happening again.  In May 2010, the Commission released its report outlining recommendations to strengthen the state's juvenile justice system.

Back to top
Key Issues
Key Issues: 

Thousands of young people entering the Pennsylvania juvenile justice system were deprived of their constitutional rights to a fair process. Youth advocacy groups complained for years that Judge Ciavarella was unusually harsh. He sent a quarter of his juvenile defendants, many of them first-time offenders, to detention centers from 2002 to 2006, while the statewide norm was 1 in 10 defendants. He also routinely ignored requests for leniency made by prosecutors and probation officers.  One stellar high school student, for instance, was jailed for three months for making a spoof MySpace page about her assistant principal. 

Marsha Levick, a lawyer with the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, told the New York Times: "The juvenile system, by design, is intended to be a less punitive system than the adult system, and yet here were scores of children with very minor infractions having their lives ruined."

The kickbacks, conspiracy and other corrupt dealings in this scandal lined private pockets at the public's expense, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars.

Back to top

The Juvenile Law Center, a nonprofit law firm dedicated to child welfare and juvenile justice issues, is the chief advocate for the teens and families affected by the scandal. JLC, which is located in Philadelphia, also is leading a push for reforms that will prevent recurrences of similar corruption.