By now, most Pennsylvanians have heard or read about the two Luzerne County judges, Mark A. Ciavarella and Michael T. Conahan who pleaded guilty in February to sentencing juveniles to secure detention facilities from which they received $2.6 million in kickbacks. Others associated with these events have also been charged.
The wrongdoings of the judges centered on the following:
- neither the juveniles nor their families were advised by the judges of their right to counsel,
- guilty pleas were accepted without explaining what the minors were charged with,
- and parents’ wages were garnished to pay for the costs of detention;
- the judges summarily and routinely ordered that youths who had committed relatively minor offenses be sent to residential youth detention facilities.
The detention centers, with the two judges’ assistance, received more than $30 million in county contracts. As part of the guilty pleas, the judges have agreed to spend 87 months in federal prison. For the juveniles who have endured this nightmare, is their any other recourse other than the knowledge that the judges who sentenced them without adhering to the juveniles’ constitutional rights are in prison? Yes. To date, three separate lawsuits have been filed on behalf of the juveniles for violation of their constitutional rights. The basis of those lawsuits stems from the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution which holds that no state, state agency or state employee can violate an individual’s rights afforded by the U.S. Constitution. A specific federal statute, 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 is the ignition that allows a lawsuit to be filed. That statute provides that an injured party in these types of cases must demonstrate a violation of a right secured by the Constitution and the laws of the United States and that the alleged deprivation was committed by a person acting under color of state law. So how is someone injured when their rights are violated? The two disgraced Luzerne County judges did not physically injure the minors who they sentenced. Nevertheless, the law allows for monetary compensation. Such cases frequently arise from police abuse/ brutality cases (violation of the 4th Amendment against unreasonable searches and seizures and 8th Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment), prisoner abuse by guards (8th Amendment) injury to a prisoner where a guard, warden, member of prison staff has knowledge of impending injury to a prisoner (8th Amendment). The hallmark of America’s civil rights is the protection from the State intruding upon its citizens. Individuals whose rights are violated have avenues that can be pursued.