February 28, 2011 in Opinion

Privatization of injustice

Leonard Pitts Jr.
 

The trial of Mark Ciavarella Jr. took 10 business days.

He was represented by counsel, testified in his own defense, had his fate – guilty on 12 out of 39 charges – decided by a jury of his peers.

He was accorded, in other words, due process. As it happens, that is precisely what Ciavarella, a former juvenile court judge in Luzerne County, Pa., denied children who came before his bench.

Like the 11-year-old boy who took his mom’s car for a joyride and had a wreck. No one was hurt. The boy, never in trouble before, faced the judge without an attorney. He was handcuffed and taken to a juvenile detention center where he spent two years.

Or the 15-year-old girl who appeared in court without an attorney after building a MySpace page mocking her assistant principal. The girl, a good student who had never been in trouble before, was sentenced to three months.

Or like Jamie Quinn, then 14, who had a minor fight after school. “It was my first time ever in front of a judge,” she told ABC News in 2009.

“He didn’t let me talk. I was literally in front of him for only, like, four minutes. He barely even looked at me. All I remember was my mom grabbed onto my hand and hugged me and then they put my hands behind my back, handcuffed me and took me right away.”

Thousands of children came before Ciavarella for relatively minor offenses – throwing meat at mom’s boyfriend, shoplifting a jar of nutmeg. And in trials that lasted as little as a minute, child after child after child was shackled and led away without even being allowed to speak in his own defense or have a lawyer do so.

What’s more appalling than the “what” of this is the “why.” Ciavarella and another judge, Michael Conahan, shut down the county’s juvenile detention center by cutting off public funds. Then they funneled kids to two new detention centers, privately owned by the judges’ friends, who had given them nearly $1 million. Ciavarella has steadfastly denied a quid pro quo – cash for kids. He says the money was a “finder’s fee” for putting the jail’s owner in touch with a builder. However the arrangement is characterized, the fact remains that he and Conahan, who pleaded guilty last year, took money from the owners of a private prison to which they then sentenced children. You be the – no pun intended – judge.

It should surprise no one that Wilkes-Barre, where this occurred, is a hardscrabble town where industry has fled and the median household income in 2009 was $27,000. These things don’t happen in moneyed places. And money, make no mistake about it, is the root of this evil. Meaning not just the riches amassed by two corrupt judges but also the vaguely appalling fact of a prison for profit. We pay taxes so government can provide functions and services we deem important to our civic life. Government inspects our food, maintains our roads, jails our miscreants. In recent years, though, some have argued that government is too bloated and inefficient to perform these services; there has been a movement to privatize many of its functions. The Wilkes-Barre experience argues that that is not always a good idea.

Some things are too important to be left to those motivated by profit.

Some services only government should provide. Crime – and the punishment thereof – ought to be at the top of the list.

Which brings us back to Mark Ciavarella. He had time to hear and rebut the evidence against him. He had a lawyer. And when he is sentenced, he will face a judge who, we may assume, has no financial interest in his punishment. That’s called justice.

One hopes Ciavarella is given a good long time to contemplate the irony.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. His e-mail address is lpitts@miamiherald.com.


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