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Kids for Cash

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: [1]

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 [2] — 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 [3] 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 [4]

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.

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#1 Comment By TomB On February 17, 2009 @ 3:14 pm

Kelley Vlahos wrote:

“else we risk turning this country into something we don’t recognize anymore.”

A little late for that, don’t you think? Indeed, would we “recognize the U.S. anymore” if it *wasn’t* engaged in this never-ended “war on drugs”? If it *hadn’t* gone on its now half-century moral crusade against people putting certain things into their own bodies in the privacy of their own homes?

Let’s see … a U.S. without some unbelievable percentage of its citizenry in prison, without all the law enforcement devoted to it, without all the judicial resources devoted to it, without all the ancillary crime devoted to its consequences (such as the high prices of drugs due to making them contraband), without the quasi-warfare we wage on so many segments of so many Latin-American countries….

Makes one wonder whether there’s any logical limit to the successfulness of hyper-moralizing politics. Ordinarily you might suspect it would be when one-half of society has put the other one-half in jail and people wake up. But even then given that the half in jail don’t get to vote, well then you think it might be when 26% of society has put the other 74% away….


#2 Comment By MattSwartz On February 17, 2009 @ 5:22 pm

Along those same lines, TomB,

I hear that one reason why rural republicans in upstate NY don’t want to bring down incarceration rates is that prisoners (who of course cannot vote) are counted in the census, artificially weighting state legislative districts to favor their region.

The problem there is the same as that mentioned in the blogpost: we’ve set up a system that incentivises imprisonment, rather than one that sees it as a last-resort recourse for violent crimes.

#3 Comment By TomB On February 17, 2009 @ 9:51 pm

MattSwartz wrote:

“I hear that one reason why rural republicans in upstate NY don’t want to bring down incarceration rates is that prisoners (who of course cannot vote) are counted in the census….”

Hilarious. You can just see ’em sitting around fuming, angry at the very idea of making recreational pot use a mere misdemeanor with no jail time, cradling their beer in their hand, fresh from the pharmacy picking up their prescription for Viagra, their hyperactive kid’s prescription for Ritalin, and their wife’s prescription for Prozac.

Terribly unfair, but still funny. Thanks.


#4 Comment By Thomas O. Meehan On February 17, 2009 @ 11:03 pm

Criminal Justice functions are privatized for two reasons. Cost, and the desire to put unpopular or risky processes at arms length . Halfway Houses are a good example. While ostensibly serving to re-integrate offenders into society, many states use private halfway houses as holding pens. When I retired from NJ Government in 2001, we had approximately 2400 inmates living in such halfway houses. The lion’s share were run by large corporate private prison companies. All of these inmates were pre-parole, that is, actual serving inmates.

With so many convicts the temptation to privatize become overwhelming. There are some good and some bad aspects of this. But the main reason is that it cost about 25k to keep a convict in prison but only about 16K to house that same inmate in a halfway house located in his home town. In fact, the halfway houses in NJ were almost all in the same ghetto’s the inmates came from in the first place.

Regarding recidivism. The majority of inmates have juvenile records, avoided any education and have been on the road to crime and dependency from a very early age. My inexperienced is that we have an endemic minority underclass that views what we call crime as normal behavior. Avoiding work, getting high and acting out are the norm within the ghetto’s our criminals come from. Legalizing drugs, while providing some relief, will not solve the problem of the criminal underclass. We must come to terms with the fact that our resident third world population cannot function in our post industrial society.

Actual recidivism rates were a closely guarded secret when I was involved because they were so appallingly bad. When you hear about successful programs and low recidivism rates, ask about time frames. We bragged of recidivism statistics showing “X” percent of our halfway house inmates stayed out of jail. What we didn’t tell the public was that the time frame was only five years! Inmates walked away from the halfway houses, tested positive for drugs and committed crimes at alarming rates.

You’re point about our country becoming unrecognizable is correct. By declaring a war on drugs and now terrorism we have extended the police power of the state to a point where many of us fear the government as much if not more than the criminals. Even more frightening is the drift to merge the social services network with the Criminal Justice System. Our system has degenerated from one based on personal responsibility and accountability to one based on therapeutic voodoo. The current model is based on behavioral/cognitive learning studies developed in Canada. Need I tell you that this model has limited success with our 70 IQ thugs?

I must differ on one point. I now live in Pennsylvania where we have elected Judges and Prosecutors. The horror show I outlined above in New Jersey took place in an environment where none of the major actors were elected. The difference between the two is that we in PA can reject our officials at the ballot box, the citizens of NJ are helpless. Public officials in PA are a lot more deferential to citizen rights.

Finally, whatever employment hope the criminal classes have disappeared with the admission to our country of million of illegal aliens.