FOR SALE: judgment on youth

Juvenile Crime

juvieJudgment for Sale

In Pennsylvania, a class action lawsuit is brewing. Several children and teens who committed crimes, often relatively minor, were sentenced to unfair terms in juvenile detention centers, camps, and other placements so the facilities and then the judges could make some extra money.

The detention centers and other juvenile facilities are privately owned and operated, a trend that is growing increasingly common in the United States. They receive funding based on a head count so they benefit financially from an increased population of arrested children and teens.

Mid Atlantic Youth Services Corp owns the detention centers in Pennsylvania where youth were placed during the years in question. The lawyer of the former owner says that his client was pressured into providing kickbacks for the judges and never actually offered money to the judges or attempted to influence rulings. The former owner and his lawyer are cooperating with the investigation.

Here is the summary:
1.) a youth gets in trouble
2.) the parents believe the trouble is minor so they decide they don’t need a lawyer, they’re usually expecting a warning, a “slap on the wrist” (something very mild), community service, or a ticket and a fine
3.) the family signs a waiver saying they do not need a lawyer – this is, after all, usually a minor infraction
4.) the youth appears in court without a lawyer – the lawyer could have been an advocate, pressuring for a reasonable sentence and providing valuable advice including knowledge of the process of an appeal
5.) the youth is surprisingly sentenced to detention time, sometimes months away from his/her family, friends, school, church, etc… some are sentenced to boot camp and/or boarding school against the wishes of their families
6.) the family chose not to have a lawyer present so they are often unaware of the options for appeal
7.) the detention centers count the youth in the facility and receive funds based on the numbers; more teens in detention = more money for detention owners
8.) the judge receives “kickbacks” in the form of illegal and secret payments for helping the detention center boost their numbers

This was going on for a number of years before an investigation began. Even after the situation was being looked at by government agencies, it took more than two years to present charges against the corrupt courts.

The investigation revealed indisputable evidence that a judge in question had been receiving funds AND that he was not the only one. Another judge had also received kickbacks for sentencing youth to time in detention. They two received more than 2.6 MILLION DOLLARS!!

Both judges resigned from their positions, have been disbarred, and will serve 87 months in prison. They will (or should be) serve jail time of about the same amount they were sending kids there for money.

The numbers of affected youth are startling. More than 5,000 youth have appeared in the county where these judges decide fates without lawyers in only the last five years.

Youth have a right to counsel, just like an adult who committed a crime. Unfortunately, many families decline that right, thinking that their child will end up having to clean up a park or volunteer with other worthwhile community programs. It made a huge different for youth in this Pennsylvania county with more than half spending time in a detention center, often referred to as juvie or juvenile hall. Compared to only 8.4% of similar sentences across the country, that percentage alone is enough to question what is going on in the courts.

For families to sign the waiver of counsel, they are supposed to be informed of the consequences and possibilities. At this time, no records have been presented to prove that the judges fulfilled this duty.

A few questionable sentences include:
1.) A 15-year-old girl sentenced to a wilderness camp for troubled youth after mocking an assistant principal via MySpace.
2.) A 13-year-old boy, who was accused of trespassing in a vacant building, was removed from his parents and confined him in a boot camp for multiple weekends.
3.) A 17-year-old boy was put into detention and sentenced to five months of boot camp for helping a friend steal a DVD.
4.) A 14-year-old boy stole change from unlocked vehicles while at a birthday party to buy soda and was sentenced to a detention center before being shipped off for boarding school for nine months

The families did not and do not expect their child to get off with no punishment. They are only requesting a fair hearing and appropriate penalty when necessary.

What do you think of this? Do you think teens should be required to have a lawyer present when they are in court? Do you think the parents should pay for the lawyer or the state? Should someone check on judge sentences to make sure they are fair? With more and more states encouraging the use of private centers, which are cheaper for the state to run, how can this be prevented?

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