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Pennsylvania court overturns thousands of juvenile sentences in judge kickback scandal

[JURIST] The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania [official website] on Thursday overturned [opinion, PDF] thousands of juvenile-offender convictions issued by a judge indicted on federal corruption charges for an alleged kickback scheme. The order voids about 6,500 convictions handed down by former Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas [official website] president judge Mark Ciavarella between 2003 and 2008. Ciavarella, along with former president judge Michael Conahan, has been accused of accepting more than $2.6 million in kickbacks for sentencing teenagers to two private juvenile detention facilities in which they had a financial interest. The court accepted the recommendation of Special Master Arthurt Grim to vacate the convictions, finding:

Judge Grim refers to the “pall” that was cast over all juvenile matters presided over by Ciavarella, given his financial interest, and his conduct in cases where juveniles proceeded without counsel. We fully agree that, given the nature and extent of the taint, this Court simply cannot have confidence that any juvenile matter adjudicated by Ciavarella during this period was tried in a fair and impartial manner.

The Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center [advocacy website], which advocated on behalf of the youth, applauded [press release] the court's decision, calling it, "an exceptional response to the most serious judicial scandal in the history of the United States." About 100 of the cases are eligible be reopened [Philadelphia Inquirer report], and the Luzerne County District Attorney has 30 days to decide whether to retry any of the defendants.

Ciavarella and Conahan were indicted in September after withdrawing the guilty pleas [JURIST reports] they entered in February. The plea withdrawal came after Judge Edwin Kosik of the US District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania [official website] rejected their plea agreements, finding that the men did not accept responsibility and that the prison sentences were too lenient [NYT report]. This prompted the two former judges to file a motion for their reinstatement. Kosik refused to reinstate the plea agreements, causing the former judges to withdraw their pleas and clearing the way for a trial. In March, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania overturned [JURIST report] hundreds of Ciavarella's juvenile convictions in specific cases where the juveniles were not represented by lawyers. Robert Powell, the owner of PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care juvenile facilities has pleaded guilty to paying kickbacks to both Ciavarella and Conahan.

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