Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Nuremberg, PA

How's this for a headline:

Pa. judges accused of jailing kids for cash
Judges allegedly took $2.6 million in payoffs to put juveniles in lockups

Here's the full story. The two judges were charged on January 26 and are expected to plead guilty to fraud on Thursday. In Pennsylvania, many juvenile detention facilities are privately-run. These two judges are alleged to have taken approximately $2.6 million in kickbacks from those private facilities between 2003 and 2006. The plea agreements call for the two men unworthy of the robe to spend more than seven years behind bars. And not a day less, I hope. They should each spend a few days for each child who was unnecessarily incarcerated by them.

What appalling behavior from these judges. Read the whole article to learn some of the more disgusting details. Many of these kids were sentenced to detention over the objection of probation officers. One of the judges incarcerated juveniles at a rate more than double the rate for the rest of the state. Where were these juveniles' attorneys you ask? Well, many of them did not have attorneys, nor were they even advised of their right to attorneys. And, yes, juveniles have a constitutional right to attorneys.

The most striking quote from the article is this:

The explanation, prosecutors say, was corruption on the bench.

Well, yes, obviously. That is definitely the major contributing factor to this outrage affecting hundreds, even thousands, of illegally incarcerated juveniles. But the judges weren't the only ones in the courtroom. This didn't happen without an audience. There may not have been defense attorneys in many of these cases, but there were prosecutors. There were court employees, court reporters, and there were probably some defense attorneys who could have seen some of the unrepresented kids appearing in court. This fraud went on for at least three years, possibly longer. In all that time, the county prosecutor's office never once questioned why so many juvenile defendants in that county were sent to detention by these two judges. Without the assistance of counsel?

The attorneys and other court personnel who stood by and watched this happen do not get a free pass in my book. Yes, they were powerless to alter the sentences meted out by these two judges, but that did not leave them with no responsibilities. These juveniles had a constitutional right to the assistance of counsel. Constitutional rights must be knowingly and voluntarily waived. An appellate court will not presume such a waiver on a silent record. So here in Kansas, for example, the defendant must personally waive his/her right to a jury trial on the record. Otherwise, a defendant convicted at a bench trial has an automatic reversal on appeal. The same should apply to a defendant who is convicted without counsel. So why weren't any of these prosecutors asking the court to make a clear record that these kids were voluntarily waiving their right to counsel? Did any of the defense attorneys who did represent one juvenile defendant step up and volunteer to also speak with that kid who didn't have an attorney?

I don't blame anyone for not cluing into the fact that judges were taking kickbacks for sending juvies to these private detention facilities. But I will hold people other than the judges partially responsible for denying these kids their basic rights. I don't care that it's the judge's courtroom or that the buck for everything that occurs in that courtroom stops with the judge. Prosecutors can't just stand by, watch judges run roughshod over the rights of defendants, and then "tsk, tsk" along with the rest of us when we find out about it after the fact. They, also, bear responsibility for protecting the rights of the defendants they charge.

It's an excellent result that these two judges will spend 7 years in prison in exchange for the young lives they imprisoned for their own financial gain. And I certainly do not think anyone else in the court system bears any criminal responsibility whatsoever. (The folks from the private facilities who forked over the cash, obviously, do.) But the court system in this Pennsylvania county really needs to take a good look at itself. I hope they don't just collectively say, "we got the bad judges, so we're good now." Instead, I hope everyone else will learn that they each need to be just a little more willing and ready to ask questions, compare notes, and speak up when they see something that just doesn't smell right.

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