Prisons are no Place for Profit

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John Lash

The Times Tribune published an article Tuesday outlining the final report of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille covering changes in how the state’s juvenile and appellate courts operate. The changes were prompted by the “Kids for Cash” scandal in Luzerne County. In case you don’t remember, the case involved two judges, Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. and Michael T. Conahan, in the juvenile court who were taking bribes to send kids to a privately operated youth detention center.

Their plot was hatched in 2000 and included rigged deals for contracts, overcharging by private prisons, fraud, bribery, kids sent to facilities in droves as a way to raise revenue, and many other crimes, and came to light over several years, starting in 2007. Both judges are now in federal prison serving lengthy sentences.

A special state commission recommended changes in 2010, including “requiring juveniles to have an attorney present at … hearings, prohibiting the use of restraints …, establishing an extensive question and answer process with a judge before a juvenile can enter a plea agreement, and creating an expedited appeal” for juveniles removed from their homes.

These changes and more were adopted by Castille, who noted the damage done to the judiciary by the two judges who “have caused unimaginable taint” to the efforts of the court system in its pursuit of justice. The state Supreme Court has ordered the expungement of 2,401 criminal records belonging to youth who appeared before Ciavarella and Conahan.

The consequences of this type of corruption are deep. At least one suicide has been attributed to the scheme, and there are difficult to measure impacts on family relationships, as well as educational and employment opportunities.

Corruption in government is nothing new or even uncommon, but it seems especially egregious when it involves the justice system, and downright intolerable when it impacts kids. I can’t help but believe this scandal was made possible, even likely perhaps, by the intersection of courts and for-profit businesses. Contrary to the ideology of many conservatives, the free market is not the answer to every problem. I don’t mean that government bureaucracies are paragons of efficiency and virtue, but that there is simply not much money to be made without the involvement of privatized services. There just isn’t as much temptation to subvert the process when profit is removed from the picture.

The profit motive corrupts wherever it appears in connection to juvenile justice. Consider this report by the Southern Poverty Law Center about Mississippi’s infamous Walnut Grove child prison, and this CBS story about a private facility in Texas. When prisons are money makers for private individuals and corporations, corruption and abuse are never far behind. It’s time these folks got out of the business of locking up kids.


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