Two Pennsylvania judges who organized a scheme to send minors to private prisons in exchange for bribes will have to pay more than $200 million to hundreds of victims of their crimes.
Federal Judge Christopher Conner ordered $106 million in compensatory payments and $100 million in punitive payments for nearly 300 people in a civil lawsuit against the judges, writing that the plaintiffs were “the tragic victims of a scandal of epic proportions.” .
In a scandal known as “Kids for Money,” Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan closed a municipal juvenile detention center and accepted $2.8 million in legal payments from the builder and co-owner of two private prisons. Ciavarella, who presided over the juvenile court, promoted a zero tolerance policy that ensured large numbers of children were sent to PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care.
Ciavarella ordered prison for children as young as 8 years old, many of them for minor crimes such as theft. He often ordered the boys to be chained, handcuffed and immediately taken to prison without a chance to say goodbye to their families.
“Ciavarella and Conahan abandoned their oath and violated the public trust,” Conner wrote Tuesday in his explanation of the ruling. “His cruel and despicable actions victimized a vulnerable population of children, many of whom were suffering from emotional and mental health problems.”
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned guilty verdicts against some 4,000 minors after learning of the scheme.
Ciavarella is serving a 28-year prison sentence. Conahan, who was sentenced to more than seven years in prison, was placed on house arrest in 2020 — with six years remaining on his sentence — due to the coronavirus pandemic.
It was unclear whether the plaintiffs — who are now adults — will receive at least some of the payments. Luzerne County, which was among the defendants, was removed from the case years ago.
Masha Levick, co-founder and legal adviser of the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center and one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, said Wednesday that she can’t imagine “there is any money.”