For a taste of what happens when hyper-privatization of government services meets the hyper-criminalization of our modern American society — a perfect storm of corruption, greed, runaway authority and shattered lives in its wake — look no further than what’s happening in Pennsylvania today:

Two lawsuits have been filed against two Pennsylvania judges accused of taking more than $2 million in kickbacks to send youth offenders to privately run detention centers.

The suits name Luzerne County Judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan as well as the individuals who allegedly paid the kickbacks and other defendants. They were filed in federal court late Thursday and Friday on behalf of hundreds of children and their families who were alleged victims of the corruption.

Prosecutors allege Ciavarella and Conahan took $2.6 million in payoffs to put juvenile offenders in lockups run by PA Child Care LLC and a sister company, possibly tainting the convictions of thousands of juvenile offenders.

The judges pleaded guilty to fraud in federal court in Scranton on Thursday. Their plea agreements call for sentences of more than seven years in prison.

For years, youth advocacy groups complained that Ciavarella, who presided over juvenile court, was overly harsh and trampled on kids’ constitutional rights. Ciavarella sent a quarter of his juvenile defendants to detention centers from 2002 to 2006, compared with a statewide rate of one in 10.

“Ciavarella, in the most cynical fashion, assured that there would be ample juveniles adjudicated delinquent and placed in PA Child Care,” one of the suits said. “As juvenile judge, he ignored law, ignored the constitution, and ignored basic human decency. He provided quick ‘justice,’ adjudicated children delinquent and ripped them from their parents in record time and in astonishing numbers.”

Attorney Barry H. Dyller called the alleged scheme  “one of the most repulsive, cynical and selfish conspiracies imaginable,” in one of two class-action lawsuits filed on Friday.

Exactly a year ago, the number of Americans behind bars reached an all-time high — more than one in 100 or 2.3 milllion — costing states $50 billion and the federal government $5 billion a year. The private for-profit prison industry is booming because of it. Elected judges — in return for personal gain — are actually perverting justice to give prison profiteers more business. It didn’t take long.

Perhaps as a society, instead of promoting this:

weekly standard

we should look into why we have incarcerated so many among us — how they got there and what forces are spurring the extraordinary recidividism. It would be a difficult and awkward conversation, challenging ideologically and morally, complicated by so many factors not mentioned here, but I think ultimately, a healthy and necessary first step away from the abyss, else we risk turning this country into something we don’t recognize anymore.