Privatization of Juvenile Justice Comes Home to Roost
Over the past three decades a continuous mantra among conservatives has been that the “free market” represents the best solutions to social problems. The government is “too big” and is inefficient; the free market works best. Let the market rule and social problems will disappear has been the thinking.
One of the consequences of this line of thinking is the privatization movement where issues normally handled by the government should be turned over to private businesses. The profit motive will guarantee better results because there are more “incentives” to make things work since making money is the goal.
The recent sentence of a juvenile judge in Pennsylvania for his involvement in a “kids for cash” scheme should put another nail in the coffin of privatization. The story, as summarized in the Christian Science Monitor, is that Mark Ciavarella was convicted in federal court in Scranton, Pa., in February on charges that he and a second judge, Michael Conahan, ran the local court system as a racketeering enterprise.” They took about $2.8 million from the owner and builder of two privately-run juvenile detention facilities. The deal was that as long as these judges helped fill the beds of these two facilities money would continue to pour into the pockets of these judges. About half of the children who appeared in Ciavarell’s courtroom were not represented by counsel and were never even advised of this right. Among this group, “up to 60 percent were ordered by Ciavarella to serve time at a detention facility.” This is an unusually high number, as about one-fourth of adjudicated juveniles are placed somewhere other than their homes, according to national data.
To correct this outrageous miscarriage of justice the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ordered that all of Ciavarell’s adjudications be vacated and records expunged. This amounts to around 4,000 cases.
No details were given on Ciavarella’s co-defendant, Michael Conahan, other than the fact that he pleaded guilty last year to one count of racketeering and is awaiting sentencing. No details were given as to the number of juveniles he sent to the private facilities.
What needs to be underscored here are two key points. First, this is what can happen when the free market gets involved in judicial matters. Those who end up in some sort of detention facility are too often sent there not because of the seriousness of their crimes, but rather to fill beds. Filling beds is the proverbial “bottom line” as far as profits are concerned.
Second, since there are not nearly enough serious offenders, in order to fill beds those who committed minor offenses end up being sentenced. One example given in the Christian Monitor story was that of a 16-year-old honor student whose crime was giving the middle finger to a police officer “who had been called during a custody dispute involving her parents and her sister.” She was sentenced to 6 months in detention. This was her first offense and had no lawyer present.
In a related story appearing in the Christian Science Monitor, a recent report by the Campaign for Youth Justice revealed that “15 states have changed their policies about trying kids as adults, and reform efforts are underway in another nine states.”
Perhaps these two stories reveal the start of a new trend of “getting smart” instead of “getting tough.”