Cash for Kids

Today’s critical reflection takes us to Luzerne county Pennsylvania. In February of 2011 former county judge Mark Ciavarella was convicted on 12 out of 39 rackateering charges and sentenced to 28 years in Federal prison. Although Ciavarella was convicted under the RICO statute, his true crime was taking part in a scheme to open a private juvenile detention center and keep it filled by any means necessary. The headlines read, “Cash for Kids”. It was not reported if Ciavarella and the other investors received a certain amount of money per child that entered the detention center, but Ciavarella admitted to receiving a $2.2 million finders fee from the contractor on the project.

Ciavarella did not act alone in this. Former Luzerne county judge Michael Conahan was responsible for putting the project in motion. First, he removed funding from the old juvenile facility so that he could shut it down. Then he signed a placement agreement with the county agreeing that juveniles would be sent to new the facility. John Mericle won the contracting bid for the construction of the facility by way of recommendation from his friend Mark Ciavarella. Attorney Robert Powell was friends with Conahan and agreed to handle the legalities of the deal. Under other circumstances this would be considered a normal business deal. What makes this case so different is the violation of civil rights that occurred. Parents were not made aware of their right or even the need for counsel. Children were incarcerated to support a business, not for rehabilitation as Ciavarella claims.

When the children were arrested the arresting officer told the parents to come down to the courthouse and everything would be straightened out there. Parents were confused on whether or not they needed an attorney because these were minor offenses that were normally solved on school grounds with the principal. When they arrived at the courthouse there was an officer at the entrance who asked everyone, “Are you here with an attorney?” If they answered no (which most of them did) they were given a waiver of counsel form to sign. The process was very swift. Some parents said it was over in a matter of minutes. Ciavarella acknowledged the waiver of counsel, read the charges, read the sentence, shackled the children and sent them on a bus to the new detention center. One mother said it was the most traumatizing thing watching her 13-year-old son shackled and taken away from her. He was sentenced to four years for possession of stolen property. His parents purchased a stolen bike and gave it to him for his birthday.

This is not an isolated incident, it’s just one where the higher up’s got caught. Currently 19.1% of United States prisons are privately owned facilities. The problem with turning our justice system into a for-profit business is that money becomes the motivation. Our criminal justice system was founded on the principles of rehabilitation for the prisoner and protection for the community, not to turn a profit. When a prison’s population rate directly affects its financial bottom line you have to start questioning sentencing practices. Is there an ulterior motive to incarcerating people? This especially looks suspicious with sentencing practices and mandatory minimums are constantly changing. There was a time when a 14 year old could not be tried as an adult and judges had discretion in sentencing procedures. Those times have changed.

Although President Lincoln took steps to outlaw slavery in 1862, the demand for free labor had not changed. The United States was in the growing process and it needed laborers. Business owners had to become more creative with how they obtained free labor. Free black men were snatched off the roads and arrested for walking on the wrong side, accused of stealing or looking at white women. Once they were sentenced the prisons sold them to the mining companies where they worked until they died. Now why does this sound familiar? Well, because it is still practiced today. Men and women are convicted on minor charges and once incarcerated are hired out by private contractors for virtually free labor (they receive minor compensation). I was watching Lock- Up the other day and I saw a prisoner who takes care of dairy cows for a milk company.

My mom has a lot of old sayings, “You can dress it up and put lipstick on it but a cow called by another name is still a cow.” Stripping an individual of their rights and using them against their will to turn a profit is still enslavement. I am all for justice and the justice system. I believe in paying the price for the crime you commit . . . An eye for eye and a tooth for a tooth. I would like to see a criminal justice system that reflects that.

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