Prison “A la Court”: Kids for Cash

Posted on March 1, 2011


Author: Stan Moody

A la Carte is a French term for “from the menu.” An entrée ordered from the menu usually entitles the customer to a choice of side dishes.

The menu in this case is a choice of corrections facilities in Pennsylvania, a favored entré being a private, for profit juvenile detention center prepared by Chef Mark Ciavarella, Jr., a Common Pleas judge in the hardscrabble town of Wilkes-Barre.

The problem appears to be that the side dishes were literally thousands of children whisked off to juvenile detention within minutes of meeting the good judge. He stands convicted in federal court of a “kids for cash” scheme that netted him an estimated $2.6 Million.

It gets better.

The juvenile detention center of choice is called “PA Child Care.” Owners were real estate developer, Robert Mericle, and officer of the court, Atty. Robert Powell. This road to Hell was paved when Ciavarella and another judge, Michael Conahan, shut down the county’s juvenile detention center by cutting off its public funding.

PA Child Care! Not your typical nursery school, it would seem.

On February 18, 2011, a federal jury found his honor, Mark Ciavarella, guilty of racketeering. A plea bargain of restitution and up to 7 years in prison had Ciavarella pleading guilty to fraud, wire fraud and tax evasion. The plea was rejected by the judge when the defendant insisted on characterizing the proceeds as “finder’s fees,” thereby denying a quid pro quo between the money and the sentences handed out.

It is expected that at sentencing, the 61 year-old judge will find himself counting down to the Second Coming.

Syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr. wrote about the case as evidence of the inherent danger of private prisons, although it would seem that something as cynical as calling a juvenile detention center “PA Child Care” speaks to a level of public corruption in places higher than nursery school – or a Court of Common Pleas, for that matter.

Pitts begins his article with a picture of Sandy Fonzo yelling at the judge after his conviction. Fonzo’s son, Edward, a champion wrestler jailed at PA Child Care by Ciavarella at age 17 (sentenced long enough to miss his high school graduation) committed suicide at age 23. His father has since admitted to planting the drug paraphernalia that led to his incarceration so as to teach him a lesson.

Pitts includes vignettes of several other cases:

An 11-year-old boy took his Mom’s car for a joy ride and wrecked it – nobody hurt. He was handcuffed and sentenced to 2 years without representation by counsel.

A 15-year-old girl appeared before Ciavarella without counsel and was sentenced to 3 months for putting up a MySpace page mocking her assistant principal.

Jamie Quinn, who at 14 had a minor fight in school, told of being in front of the judge for 4 minutes, handcuffed and incarcerated with barely a glance from the bench.

What kind of person would ruin people’s lives for a few bucks? Ciavarella was the kind of person who enjoyed the undying respect and gratitude of the community – a regular upstanding citizen.

It may well be that the cost of earning and maintaining a reputation as an upstanding citizen was somewhat higher than a judge’s salary.

A lifelong resident of Wilkes-Barre, Ciavarella was named in 2006 by the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick as Wilkes-Barre’s “Man of the Year,” the impetus being, it is conjectured, a record of faithful tithing.

In a twist of irony, Ciavarella, after tendering his resignation to Gov. Ed Rendell, applied for his state retirement benefits that included $232,000 in a lump sum and $5,156 a month. Initially approved, the PA State Employees Retirement System reversed its position after being alerted by the Department of Public Welfare that he owes them $4.3 Million in overpayments to the PA Child Care centers.

The proof in the pudding of how deep and wide the corruption reaches will be the length of his sentence, which could be up to 137 years or 3 years, whichever the case may be.

We the people vote for a sentence A la Court – from the menu.