Jailed kids-for-cash judge loses bid for pandemic release

Pennsylvania

FILE – In this Feb. 12, 2009 file photo, former judge Mark Ciavarella, center, leaves the federal courthouse in Scranton, Pa. Ciavarella is serving a 28-year sentence and fellow ex-judge Michael Conahan 17 years for taking $2.6 million from companies looking to build and fill a youth detention center for Luzerne County. Ciavarella’s daughter and one of the teens he sent away have formed an unlikely friendship and are now pondering ways to help troubled youth. (AP Photo/David Kidwell, File)

WILKES-BARRE, Pa. (AP) — A disgraced Pennsylvania judge who locked up thousands of juvenile offenders while he was taking kickbacks from the owner and builder of for-profit detention centers has lost his bid to be released from prison because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Mark Ciavarella, a former Luzerne County juvenile court judge, had requested a compassionate release from a federal lockup in Kentucky. The 70-year-old cited his age and underlying medical conditions that put him at heightened risk of serious illness from COVID-19, and the virus outbreaks that have swept through the prison.

U.S. District Judge Christopher C. Conner ruled this week that Ciavarella, who is serving a 28-year prison sentence, should remain behind bars even though he “arguably established extraordinary and compelling reasons for compassionate release.”

Ciavarella “continues to understate the seriousness of his offense conduct,” Conner wrote, and “persists in downplaying the overall criminal scheme and his role in it.” He noted Ciavarella has served less than half of his sentence.

In what came to be known as the kids-for-cash scandal, Ciavarella and another judge, Michael Conahan, shut down a county-run juvenile detention center and accepted $2.8 million in illegal payments from the builder and co-owner of two for-profit lockups. Ciavarella, who presided over juvenile court, pushed a zero-tolerance policy that guaranteed large numbers of kids would be sent to PA Child Care and its sister facility, Western PA Child Care.

Prosecutors said Ciavarella ordered children as young as 10 to detention, many of them first-time offenders convicted of petty theft and other minor crimes. The judge often ordered youths he had found delinquent to be immediately shackled, handcuffed and taken away without giving them a chance to say goodbye to their families.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw out some 4,000 juvenile convictions after the scheme was uncovered.

Conahan, 68, the other judge in the scandal, was sentenced to more than 17 years in prison. He was released to home confinement last year with six years left on his sentence because of coronavirus concerns.

Last year, Ciavarella lost his bid for a new sentencing hearing after three of the 12 counts of his 2011 conviction were overturned on appeal.

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