Judges who sent children to for-profit prisons for bribes ordered to pay more than $200 million in damages

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Two Pennsylvania judges who orchestrated a scheme to send children to for-profit prisons in exchange for bribes have been ordered to pay more than $200 million to hundreds of victims of their crimes.

U.S. District Judge Christopher Conner awarded $106 million in compensatory damages and $100 million in punitive damages to nearly 300 people in a long-running civil lawsuit against the judges, writing that the plaintiffs are “the tragic human victims of a scandal of epic proportions”.

Mark Ciavarella and another judge, Michael Conahan, closed a county-run juvenile detention center and accepted $2.8 million in illegal payments from the builder and co-owner of two for-profit prisons. Ciavarella, who presided over the juvenile court, pushed for a zero-tolerance policy that ensured large numbers of children would be sent to PA Child Care and its sister facility, Western PA Child Care.

Former Luzerne County Court Judge Michael Conahan leaves the federal courthouse in Scranton, Pennsylvania in 2009.David Kidwell/AP File

Ciavarella ordered the detention of children as young as 8, many of whom were first-time offenders convicted of petty thefts and other petty crimes. The judge often ordered that young people he found delinquent be immediately chained, handcuffed and taken away without giving them the opportunity to say goodbye to their families.

“Ciavarella and Conahan abandoned their oath and breached the public trust,” Conner wrote Tuesday in his explanation of the judgment. “Their cruel and despicable actions victimized a vulnerable population of young people, many of whom suffered from emotional problems and mental health issues.”

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw out some 4,000 juvenile convictions after the scheme was discovered.

Ciavarella is serving a 28-year prison sentence. Conahan, who was sentenced to more than 17 years in prison, was released on house arrest in 2020 – with six years remaining on his sentence – due to the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s unclear whether the plaintiffs – now well into adulthood – will see any of the dazzling damages. Luzerne County, a former defendant, was dismissed from the case years ago.

Marsha Levick, co-founder and chief attorney of the Juvenile Law Center of Philadelphia and plaintiffs’ attorney, said Wednesday that she “can’t imagine there’s money there.”

Conner ruled after hearing testimony last fall from 282 people who appeared in Ciavarella’s courtroom — 79 of whom were under the age of 13 when Ciavarella sent them to juvenile detention — and 32 parents.

“They recounted his harsh and arbitrary nature, his disregard for due process, his extraordinary brusqueness, and his cavalier and rude behavior in the courtroom,” Conner wrote.

To calculate compensatory damages, he decided that each plaintiff was entitled to a base rate of $1,000 for each day of wrongful detention, and adjusted that amount based on the circumstances of each case.

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