EMMANUEL: Hey, everyone. Uh, We're really hard at work on a new episode for you guys, but I think we have something super exciting for you guys this week. It's a story from one of our newest shows here at Gimlet. It's a show called Crime Show, and I'm joined by the host Emma Cortland. Uh hey Emma
EMMA: Hi Emmanuel,
EMMANUEL: how are you doing?
EMMA: [sigh] I'm really good.
EMMANUEL: That was such a big sigh, but I feel like it's only the sigh of someone who's on a reporting trip, which is where you are, right?
EMMA: Yeah, this is the first one that I've done in almost two years. Um here I am in, I've been reporting in Penn Yan.
EMMANUEL: Where’s Penn Yan?
EMMA: Um, in the Finger Lakes area of New York State
EMMANUEL: In the state in which I live
EMMA: in the state in which you live, but it's a totally different vibe. Uh… I'm here talking to Mennonites
EMMA: But today I did my sixth interview of the week.
EMMANUEL: Ok, you’ve- you’ve been busy. While I have you um, can you tell me a little bit about Crime Show?
EMMA: Yeah, it's an episodic show that sounds like a mini-series that feels like a mini-series, which is to say it's reported. And there is a reason that we're telling each one of the stories that we're telling.
EMMANUEL: Just listening to the show, one of the things I've really appreciated is just like um, you guys question the very notion of what a crime is in this way that like, I really appreciate it. Like, you take these so-called crimes and like you give them real context in a way that I think makes you sort of question everything about how we view criminal justice or the nature of crime as like a listener.
EMMA: Yeah so, in our society, we have an underlying philosophy of crime. And of the criminal justice system. But then we have all of these buzzwords that kind of take us away from what those things -- what the experience of criminal justice is like from a human perspective. Right?
EMMA: So we're trying to like move away from those things because I think that those labels tend to get in the way of like the humanity, and-
EMMA: and they generate a lot of preconceived notions, basically.
EMMANUEL: Totally. I'm really excited because we get to hear like a story from your show today. Um, this one surprised me because like, it's from a part of the internet that I just have not thought about it like a really, really long time. Um, what first drew you to this story?
EMMA: there was something about the image of the first crime, like it's so crazy that that like that this could be considered a crime? This story is full of, full of the stupidest crimes I have ever heard. Like, this is a grab bag of stupid crimes and then a really big, not stupid crime.
EMMANUEL: Great. Well, I’m super excited for our listeners to hear this. If you wanna hear more episodes of Crime Show, uh you can find them on Spotify. We’ll be right back with Emma Courtland and an episode of the show right after the break.
EMMA COURTLAND: In the summer of 2006, Hillary Transue found herself in what felt at the time like the one of the worst possible situations a teenager can possibly find herself: she had a broken leg during summer vacation. Hillary was just 14 years old at the time. She was angsty and immobile and bored out of her mind. So one day, she called her girlfriends to come over and mess around on social media.
HILLARY TRANSUE: Social media wasn't even called social media at the time. It was just MySpace.
EMMA: Sorry—Hillary called her friends to come over and mess around on MySpace.
HILLARY: I think we were all kind of testing what it could do, right? And I was like, "How funny would it be if we made a MySpace page about Mrs. Gregory?"
EMMA: Mrs. Gregory was the Vice Principal at Hillary's high school.
HILLARY: Like, "Ha, ha! Adults on MySpace? Can you imagine? Like, what if an adult had a MySpace page?"
EMMA: Again, Hillary and her friends were 14 at the time.
HILLARY: And so we started talking about it, about what would be funny to add on there. And then I was like, "No, let's do it. Like, why are we talking about it? We have the technology, you know?" So it was like, "Let's do it!"
EMMA: MySpace Mrs. Gregory was like a time capsule of teenage tomfoolery. Her interests included: Johnny Depp's tighty whiteys. Her favorite celebrities? Bob Barker and the Devil. And for her profile pic, Hillary drew a portrait of Mrs Gregory in MS paint. She wore her signature outfit—a lime green suit—but she had fire for hair. And on her arm? A swastika armband.
HILLARY: Yeah. So it just—it was not nice, but childish.
EMMA: Nobody ever expected Mrs. Gregory to find the page. But in case she did, Hillary added a disclaimer.
[MUSIC FADES INTO BASE]
HILLARY: It literally said, "Disclaimer: this is not actually so and so, the principal of Crestwood High School. This is a teenager." And I finished it with, "Mrs. Gregory, if you ever find this, I hope that you have a sense of humor." Spoiler alert, she did not.
EMMA: Mrs. Gregory found the page. But instead of calling Hillary into her office—or even calling Hillary's parents—Mrs. Gregory called the cops. Which is how, in February, 2007, Hillary came to find herself in the Luzerne County Juvenile Courthouse charged with harassment. Hillary was known for having a big mouth and a big personality, and sometimes it got her in trouble. But never like this. Never like have to go to court trouble. So when the elevator doors opened on the floor for juvenile court, Hillary had no idea where to go. Luckily, she spotted what looked like a check-in table.
[HOLLOW BACKGROUND NOISE]
HILLARY: Hi, I'm Hillary Transue. I'm here for juvenile court. And they're like, "Do you have a lawyer?" And I was like, "No." And these, you know, ladies passed me a piece of paper.
LAURENE TRANSUE: And she said, "Sign here." So in my mind, I thought, "Oh, this is where you get an attorney."
EMMA: That's Hillary's mom Laurene. At the time, she was a social worker with the family courts in Pennsylvania, which is just to say, she knew how all of this was supposed to work.
LAURENE: In other courts I'd seen, unfortunately, if you're getting a public defender, you don't get them until you're actually there. So I signed this blank form.
HILLARY: So she signed it. I think I signed it, you know, and then they pointed to this huge room packed full of people and said, "You go wait in there until they call your name."
EMMA: There were more than 50 kids in the room, all of them waiting for their names to be called, to go inside the courtroom and be judged by Mark Ciavarella. Hillary didn't know much about Judge Ciavarella. The kids at school said he was a hard ass, the teachers said he was a pillar of the community. Either way, Hillary wasn't super concerned. What was he gonna do? Make her bang erasers? Write "I'm sorry" 100 times on the chalkboard? Nothing to worry about. Until they called her name.
HILLARY: And that's when I started getting scared.
That is when it finally hit me. I was like, "Wait a minute, we haven't even met with an attorney. Like, my mom said, she was like, "Well, maybe they, like, meet with you briefly outside the courtroom. Look how many kids are here. Like, they have to be busy, you know?"
LAURENE: But I knew what was supposed to happen. And she was supposed to come in, there was supposed to be call of the list. They'd set a date for a trial. That's how it was supposed to go.
EMMA: But then the doors opened, and Hillary was called in without an attorney.
HILLARY: That's the first moment that we realized that this was not going to go in any way that we had expected.
EMMA: Hillary walked down the aisle and took her place in front of Judge Ciavarella. Laurene stood behind her. Ciavarella looked down at the papers in front of him, thumbing through the police report related to Hillary's case. Then he looked her in the eyes.
HILLARY: And he looks at me and he goes, "What the hell makes you think you can do this kind of crap?"
And I was like, "Uh." I said, "I did not consider my vice principal as a human being. I only looked at her as an administration member at my school. I'm sorry that I did what I did. I didn't consider her feelings."
EMMA: Judge Ciavarella glared at Hillary.
HILLARY: He asked me, "Do you remember when I came to your school and I had an assembly? Do you remember what I told you I would do?"
EMMA: Hillary remembered that Judge Ciavarella had been at an assembly at her school. It was only one year earlier—her freshman year. Hillary was still pretty new to Luzerne County, and she hadn't really made a lot of friends yet.
HILLARY: They filed us into the assembly room, and he started going on about like, "I'm the juvenile court judge." And I remember thinking, like, I'm a good kid. I'm not gonna be in juvenile court. I literally remember having the thought, "This isn't relevant to me, so I don't need to listen." And I just sort of snoozed my way through it.
EMMA: So Hillary told Ciavarella, "I don't recall, sir."
HILLARY: And he goes, "Oh, you don't recall."
LAURENE: Then he just started yelling again.
HILLARY: He said, "Well, you're gonna have lots of time to think about what I said at that assembly. Send her up to fact.
LAURENE: "Send her up to fact," which I knew from my experience was a residential treatment facility.
HILLARY: Then he hit his gavel down.
LAURENE: He brought the gavel down.
HILLARY: And then everything exploded.
EMMA: Hillary was handcuffed and escorted out of the courtroom before Laurene had even processed what happened.
LAURENE: I'd barely saw the back of the female bailiff and the door closing, and she was just gone. No goodbye. Nothing.
EMMA: In just over 90 seconds, 15-year-old Hillary had been tried and adjudicated delinquent, and sentenced to time in a residential treatment facility—three months indefinite, meaning that if she misbehaved, the court reserved the right to keep her indefinitely—or at least until she turned 18. All for the crime of making a MySpace page.
But this story is not about a MySpace page. The crime at the heart of this story is significantly more sinister. And if it weren't for that MySpace page and the loudmouth teen who made it, we may never have known what was really happening in Luzerne County. I'm Emma Courtland. This is Crime Show.
[THEME MOVES IN AND OUT]
LAURENE: Oh yeah, I started to collapse because that's when I just—I guess you could say screaming. I don't know. I felt like I was yelling, I was pleading. Like, "Take me," kind of thing. Like, "Well, where is she? Can I say goodbye? Can I at least say goodbye?" And they're like, "No, she's already gone."
EMMA: But Hillary wasn't gone. She was in a holding cell just out of sight, close enough that she could hear Laurene yelling.
HILLARY: So I just kept expecting her to, like, be in there busting ass because that's what she does. And she never showed up, and it just started to sink on me, you know, sink in this is really happening. This is really happening to me.
EMMA: Hillary was loaded into a big white van with a few other girls, and shipped to a juvenile detention camp in the Pocono Mountains. She was being sent away—away from her family, away from her friends, and everyone she knew. At least that's what she thought, until she actually arrived at camp and realized...
HILLARY: Like, half of the girls at our camp are from Luzerne County.
EMMA: Not just the county. A bunch of them were from Hillary's high school. On the very first day at camp, she ran into a girl who used to sit at her lunch table, Jess Van Winkle.
HILLARY: And she said, "Look, I'm not allowed to talk to you in the first week because no one's allowed to talk to you, but after next week, let's reconvene." And then she walked away.
EMMA: Over the next week, Hillary learned a lot about this weird situation she was in. For one, even in their matching orange sweatsuits, the kids that had been sentenced in Ciavarella's court seemed markedly different from the kids that came to camp from other places.
HILLARY: The people at camp knew us as "Ciavarella's kids" because we were definitely different from or separate from the rest of the population.
EMMA: In the rest of the population, there were kids who'd committed some pretty serious crimes. Things like assault. Ciavarella's kids, on the other hand, seemed to be in for comparatively silly stuff like skipping school and trespassing.
Also, it seemed like Ciavarella's kids all had more or less the same experience in his courtroom.
HILLARY: 30 second trial, 30 second trial. And no attorney. And it's less of a "Did you do this?" than it is "You did this, and now I'm punishing you."
EMMA: To Hillary, the whole just thing felt pretty messed up. So when she finally got to talk to her friend Jess, Hillary had to ask about it.
HILLARY: I was like, "Hey, man. Like, did you have an attorney? Because, like, I don't know much, but I watch a lot of, like, Law & Order with my brothers and, like, I'm, like, 90 percent positive that you need to have an attorney. And she was like, "No." She's like, "I think it's different for kids or something, because none of us had attorneys. If you're from Ciavarella's courtroom, you do not get an attorney. That's just how it works."
EMMA: No matter how many people said this to her, the whole thing struck Hillary as just very wrong. But for the time being, there didn't seem to be anything she could do about it. So between rounds of push-ups and toilet-scrubbing, Hillary spent most of her time journaling in her notebook—and crying.
HILLARY: You cry a lot. You cry a lot. I'm kind of understating how much you cry. And I think I just, like, wrote in my journal, "You know, this really sucks. I have no idea what's going on. I really hope my mom fixes this."
EMMA: Back home, Hillary's mom, Laurene, was trying to fix it—frantically. But her efforts were getting her nowhere. Laurene said that she called the probation department. They said, "No, we don't do appeals." She called the public defender's office. Nothing. The ACLU. Nada. Can't do it.
LAURENE: I was like, "You don't understand. She's a baby. She's—she's been very protected. And they just—they either couldn't help or wouldn't help.
EMMA: Finally, about a week after Hillary was sent away, Laurene made contact with someone willing to hear her out.
LAVAL MILLER WILSON: I could tell right away from her tone that she was wracked by guilt.
EMMA: That's Laval Miller Wilson. Today, he's an attorney with the Pennsylvania Health Law Project. But in 2007, he was working for a nonprofit in Philadelphia called the Juvenile Law Center. At the time, the JLC was really more of a resource center to help connect kids and their families with the legal help they needed. So they didn't actually take individual cases, but when they heard Laurene's story, they immediately recognized red flags all over the place.
MARSHA LEVICK: The story was just deeply disturbing.
EMMA: This is Marsha Levick, the chief legal officer of the JLC.
MARSHA: 15-year-old girl charged with an utterly ridiculous offense. The only official person in the courtroom is a prosecutor. And the hearing is—you know, takes 90 seconds.
The first question from the judge is—was something like, "What makes you think you could get away with this?" Like, what is that? How is that a court proceeding? Just watch Law & Order. That's not how they start. So we understood that something very, very crazy had happened here.
EMMA: Perhaps the craziest part was the fact that Hillary had been sentenced and removed from her home without a lawyer present. This court had essentially let a child represent herself in a case where her liberty was in jeopardy. But how was it that Hillary had come to represent herself in the first place? After a bit of questioning, the lawyers realized that piece of paper Laurene and Hillary had signed at the check-in table? That was a waiver of counsel. By signing it, they had waived Hillary's right to an attorney without even realizing it. Laurene was devastated.
LAVAL: She, I think, felt doubly bad about the situation that she put her child through.
EMMA: Then Laurene told Laval the name of the judge who sentenced Hillary.
LAURENE: He goes, "I can't believe this guy is doing this again."
EMMA: The attorneys at the Juvenile Law Center knew about Judge Mark Ciavarella. He had a nickname in Pennsylvania: Mr, Zero Tolerance. It was a moniker he took pride in. In fact, when he first ran for judgeship back in 1995, he used this as his campaign ad...
[ARCHIVE CLIP, MARK CIAVARELLA "As judge, if given the opportunity to try a juvenile offender as an adult, I will. If you're a teen, you can expect that I will impose the maximum sentence allowed by law."]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, NARRATOR: "Mark Ciavarella, a judge to protect all of us."]
EMMA: As insane as an ad like this sounds today, Ciavarella's whole "tough on kids" thing got him elected—twice.
MARSHA: You have to understand the timing and the context.
EMMA: The first piece of that context? The super-predator myth.
MARSHA: Now it's a myth, but the idea of this coming generation of teen predators that was gonna terrorize our neighborhoods, was born in 1995-1996.
EMMA: The same year Ciavarella first got elected.
MARSHA: Very quickly disavowed by the criminologist who coined the term. But it lived. It lived for more than a decade, and it influenced how policymakers, judges, legislators thought about children who committed crimes.
EMMA: And how they thought about preventing kids from committing crimes. Which leads to the second major point of context: Columbine.
MARSHA: Which happened in '99. Just sent a chill, understandably, through schools. No school administrator, no school principal, no community wanted to be the next Columbine.
EMMA: Everyone wanted to know: how can we prevent this from happening in our community? The answer was severe, punitive justice. Or as we know it today: zero tolerance.
MARSHA: Zero tolerance grew up in the context of zero tolerance for misconduct in schools. It went way beyond weapons, went way beyond guns and knives. It went to plastic knives. I mean, in the early 2000s, there were stories every day in the newspaper about kids in kindergarten being suspended because they had a plastic knife in their lunch box.
EMMA: Into this world of super predators and zero tolerance, this small-town judge, Judge Mark Ciavarella, had positioned himself squarely on the line between order and Columbine. Ciavarella was the protector of the community. And the community welcomed his protection—seemingly in whatever form it took. Which might have explained why the local high school would invite him to speak at assemblies. Or why Mrs. Gregory had called 911 instead of simply calling Hillary's parents. Or why it seemed like Hillary had been tricked into waiving her constitutional right to an attorney. It might have explained all that. But to Marsha and Laval, there was something else about all this that just felt off. The JLC agreed to take Hillary's case, and Laurene arranged a phone call for Laval to talk to Hilary at camp. But it wasn't until Laval got on the phone with Hillary that he began to suspect what that feeling was all about. On that very first call, Hillary told Laval ...
HILLARY: When I spoke to Laval that first time on the phone, I said, "You know, there are other girls here who didn't have lawyers."
EMMA: But Laval didn't flinch. He simply said, "Oh, really?"
LAVAL: And she said, "Sure." She said that our stories tend to be the same.
EMMA: The same waivers. Same 90-second trial. Same trivial charges. And no attorney.
LAVAL: I was pretty sickened by it.
EMMA: But Laval wouldn't show Hillary how he was really feeling. He wouldn't offer her promises or pep talks. Laval simply rolled up his sleeves and got to work. He went to court and got Hillary out of camp. Hillary would get to go home, and Laurene would get her baby back. But for Laval, the issue was far from over. When he got back to Philadelphia, he marched into Marsha's office at the JLC and told her what he had really been thinking.
LAVAL: Yeah, there's something that's going on. It's time to really start investigating and looking for other folks because we need to do something about this.
EMMA: Clearly, Hillary wasn't the only kid who had unwittingly waived her right to counsel. Clearly, there were other kids whose constitutional rights had been violated. But the JLC had no idea how many there were, so they filed a records request. And what they found was staggering.
MARSHA: When we began to dig deeper into exactly what the extent of waiver of counsel was for children in Luzerne County, the number was shockingly high.
EMMA: Close to 60 percent of the children who appeared in front of Judge Ciavarella did not have a lawyer. The average across the state was just three percent.
MARSHA: It was literally off the charts, and it reminded us the risk of the juvenile justice system.
EMMA: Unlike the court system that processes adults—the ones we usually see on TV—the primary directive of the juvenile justice system isn't punishment. It's rehabilitation. Which is why juvenile courts, unlike their adult counterparts, are closed to the public. Their proceedings are kept private to shield the children from the stigma that comes with carrying a criminal record, from being pigeonholed by their mistakes. But that privacy cuts both ways. Without the scrutiny of society, there's no way to know if that system is operating the way it should. No way to know if justice is being upheld, or if a judge is running his court like an assembly line. Which, based on the numbers, seemed to be the case in Ciavarella's courtroom.
EMMA: Between 2005 and 2006, almost 600 kids had been sentenced without an attorney in Luzerne County. 600 kids in just two years.
LAVAL: That was enough for us to—and for me to make a determination that there were system failures. System failures by the judge, system failures by the public defender offices. The system's not supposed to work that way.
EMMA: These kids were entitled to real justice, to having their records expunged and their names cleared. And the JLC was prepared to help them get that. But there were too many of them for the JLC to represent individually—and certainly not in Ciavarella's court. No, for a case this size and this serious they'd have to file a petition with the State Supreme Court. The problem was the JLC had no idea who or where these 600 kids were. Their records had been sealed, so their names were hidden from the public. And the JLC couldn't depend on the courts to help find them. So instead, they turned to someone much closer to the action.
HILLARY: They literally asked me to go around school and try and find students who had been sent away to Ciavarella without attorneys—which by the way, not a difficult task.
EMMA: While the doors to the juvenile court had been sealed for the students' protection, in the halls of Hillary's high school, they were literally on display.
HILLARY: The probation office was literally a room made out of windows, and in a main hall, in, like, a main hub of the school where you would, like, travel between classes. So you would see kids in there just, like, sitting with their P.O. You know, you were on display like an animal at the zoo. Look, there's the bad kids. Look where they sit.
EMMA: The probation office may have been designed to shame the students that walked in there, but for Hillary, it was one-stop shopping. She brought a handful of Laval's business cards to school and handed them out to kids as they walked out of the probation office.
[MUSIC FADED OUT]
HILLARY: And I was like, "Hey, Kendra, guess what? I've got these cool attorneys, and they'll hook you up, man. Like, if you call them, they're gonna take Ciavarella down, and they need as much of us as they can to, like, do something." So I was alive with the spirit of rebellion.
EMMA: Laval felt the same way.
LAURENE: He says in that quiet voice, he goes, "You know, Laurene, this could be really big." I'm like, "Well, it's a big deal to us, Laval." And he goes, "No." He goes, like, "This could be in the newspapers." And I said, "I'm not worried about that. Let them put in the newspaper whatever they want." And he goes, "No, like the national news." And we all looked at each other and started laughing. He's like, "It could be on television." I'm like, "Yeah. No, I don't think so."
EMMA: At the end of the day, only five kids had signed up for the cause. A lot of people were scared—justifiably—that Ciavarella would retaliate against them. But it didn't even feel like it mattered.
MARSHA : You know, we felt like this was, in some respects, a lay-up. Like, this is a flagrant violation. There's nothing mysterious or gray about this, because our position was very simple: they were all unconstitutional.
EMMA: So in April, 2008, the JLC took their findings and submitted a motion directly to Pennsylvania's highest court. The law was cut and dry, and the numbers were undeniable. Marsha and Laval were confident that the Supreme Court would intervene. And, it seemed, they weren't the only ones who thought so. The local news soon caught wind of the center's efforts. Then national reporters started knocking on Hillary's door asking for interviews. And amidst all the dust-up, Judge Mark Ciavarella suddenly decided to step down from the juvenile court bench.
LAVAL: It led to Ciavarella going into a kind of defense diversion mode, which was, "Well, I'm just gonna stop hearing juvenile court cases."
EMMA: For the first time since Hillary was sent away, it felt like people were paying attention. Like they were listening and really considering what was happening in Luzerne County. Like the tide was about to turn. And then all that momentum came to an abrupt halt.
MARSHA: January 2009, early January 2009, we get a one-sentence order from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denying this petition.
LAVAL: That was probably one of the lowest points in my career.
EMMA: The explanation they received was essentially: you claim that hundreds of kids are affected by this, but only a handful of them are named. So as far as we're concerned, this isn't significant enough to warrant our intervention.
LAVAL: That shook my confidence in the legal system.
EMMA: It was a tough blow for all of them, but maybe especially for Hillary.
HILLARY: Ever since I came back from jail, I was like, "Ciavarella's going down." And teachers literally laughed at me. They said, "Ciavarella will never go to jail." They were like, "You're an idiot," basically. They said, "Do you know how long he's been judge? How long he's been doing this? Do you know how well-connected he is? Nothing's gonna happen to him. You're an idiot." And I just—I was like, "No, you don't know. There's something more going on, and you're wrong."
EMMA: This probably should have been a wake-up call to Hillary, that she needed to accept her situation and move on with her life. But it wasn't. And she didn't. She felt, with every fiber of her being, that this wasn't right. That something here was majorly messed up. And then, the JLC got a call confirming precisely that.
[MUSIC IN, DRUMS ONLY]
MARSHA: I get a call from the field director of the FBI field office in Luzerne County.
EMMA: The news about the petition had found its way to the FBI. And they had questions. Lots of them. Specifically about Judge Ciavarella.
[MUSIC, CHORDS JOIN]
MARSHA: What do you know? What's going on in Ciavarella's courtroom? And it was the kind of question that it was clear to me there was something else that was being investigated. To be clear, I had no idea. I knew it wasn't just about kids appearing without lawyers.
[MUSIC CONTINUES TO BUILD]
EMMA: Something was rotten in Luzerne County. The JLC suspected it from the moment they first connected with Laurene. And the more they learned about Ciavarella's court, the deeper their suspicions grew. Ciavarella had been herding kids into the courtroom by the thousands, sentencing 60 percent of them without representation. Ripping them from their homes over seriously stupid stuff. And the world was about to find out why.
[MUSIC OUT] BREAK
[THEME MUSIC IN, FADES INTO OTHER MUSIC]
EMMA: On a Monday in late January, 2009, the news broke. And the truth that had been hidden behind the closed doors of Ciavarella's courtroom was finally laid bare for everyone to see. The reason Judge Ciavarella had been so cavalier about sentencing kids, the answer to why he had accepted so many unconstitutional guilty pleas, why he'd devised a system that tricked kids into waiving their right to counsel, why he handed out indefinite sentences like they were candy at Hallowe'en, was that he, and another Luzerne County Judge named Michael Conahan, had been getting paid for it since 2002.
EMMA: According to court filings submitted by the government, this is how it started: [MUSIC IN] back in 2000, the two judges had been approached by a man with a business proposition. The man wanted to build a private juvenile detention center in Luzerne, but he had a problem: Luzerne already had a juvenile detention center, operated by the county. So what the man proposed was this: Judge Conahan would cut off funding for the county facility, eventually forcing it to close down. And Judge Ciavarella would ensure that the new facility stayed full by sentencing kids to detention—even when the probation department felt it wasn't necessary. And in exchange for their cooperation, the man would pay them finder's fees. They'd become shareholders, part owners in the detention facility that they would keep stocked with children. The judges accepted the man's offer, and over the course of six years, from the time the deal was struck until the time Ciavarella left the court, they received more than $2.6-million in kickbacks. Laurene was just sitting down to lunch at a local restaurant when she heard the news.
LAURENE: And I look up. They had a TV, and there was Ciavarella. And they were saying about the money. I was like, "I knew it! I knew—like, I knew there had to be something. I knew it. I knew something had to be going on. And I was so happy because I thought, "This guy is gonna pay for it."
EMMA: For Hillary, who was at school when the news broke, the shift was immediate and palpable.
HILLARY: One of my teachers, Mr. Resnack, he came up to me and he said, "Hillary, I always thought that what Ciavarella was doing up there was right. And now I've learned that I'm wrong. And I'm so sorry that that happened to you." And I was like, that's so sweet and cool that, like, an adult could be that real and vulnerable with me. So it was just like—it was one of the most special days of my life.
EMMA: But that euphoric sense of vindication, of pure justice, that would be short-lived. [MUSIC OUT] Because when they actually got to read the charges against Ciavarella, they realized none of them actually addressed the harm he'd caused the children of Luzerne County.
LAURENE: To me, the problem was what he did to children and families. The money was just an aside, but that's when the media frenzy really started.
EMMA: The formal accusations included charges for racketeering, fraud, money laundering, extortion, bribery, and federal tax violations. But for the civil rights violations? Nothing. Still, the money put the spotlight on Luzerne County, which provided an opportunity for all these other victims, these kids who'd been railroaded by Ciavarella's "justice," to step out of the shadows and into that light to tell their stories.
Among them, there was one kid who'd been sent away for cursing. Another for trespassing in an abandoned building. One had thrown a piece of steak at his stepdad. And one kid, a girl, had been sentenced to time for hitting her mom—with a pillow.
EMMA: Many of these kids, like Hillary, had been marked by their experiences. At school, they faced all kinds of discrimination. At home, embarrassment. They carried psychic scars from being pulled from their families and labeled as bad kids. But they'd emerged from it at least physically unscathed. Others weren't so lucky.
EMMA: Charlie Balasavage was 15 years old when he was arrested for possession of a stolen scooter. The scooter had been a gift from his parents who bought it second-hand and didn't know that it was stolen. But that didn't matter to Ciavarella. Charlie was adjudicated delinquent and sentenced to six months—but he wound up spending five years in the system. It was an experience from which he never fully recovered.
MARSHA: He developed a drug problem. And so once he came out of the juvenile justice system, he had a significant drug abuse problem, and he went back in and out of the system for crimes associated with his drug abuse: stealing his grandfather's credit cards to be able to pay for his drug habit.
EMMA: Charlie would eventually die from an overdose—from a habit he picked up while in placement.
MARSHA: There's a line that traces back to his initial involvement in the justice system that was entirely a consequence of Ciavarella's actions. So it's just very difficult for kids who are in that system to fully get everything back.
EMMA: Even in light of all of this, of the harm, the money, and the outrageous conflicts of interest, there were members of the community who continued to defend Ciavarella. Who believed his courtroom behavior was completely justified. That these kids needed—even benefitted—from his harsh punishments. To these people, the kickbacks were practically irrelevant. They would point to Ciavarella's sentencing stats, to the fact that they'd always been higher than the national average, even before he'd become a shareholder in the detention center. They also pointed out that Ciavarella wasn't just sentencing kids to his own detention center. Hillary herself wasn't actually sent to one of Ciavarella's facilities. To those people, Marsha Levick would say ...
MARSHA: Yeah, you know, it may be that he always sent kids away, but one day he figured out he could get paid for it. And to imagine that that did not influence his decision-making is beyond naive.
EMMA: For whatever it's worth, it does seem like Ciavarella believed in what he was doing. Or at the very least, enjoyed it. Which may be why, when his case finally went to trial in February of 2011, the former judge offered no apologies for what he did to the kids of Luzerne County.
MARSHA: No remorse to the end. When Ciavarella at his sentencing hearing was asked if he wanted to apologize to anybody, he really didn't. He never—I don't know what he thinks today. At the time, he certainly never understood the harm that he had done to children.
EMMA: In the end, Ciavarella was convicted on 12 counts, including racketeering and fraud. He was sentenced to 28 years in prison which, for him, will essentially amount to a life sentence. In all likelihood, Ciavarella will die in prison having never apologized for what he's done. In the aftermath of the kids-for-cash scandal, as with just about every other national scandal, people went looking for answers to that age-old question: how did this happen? They pointed to the closed courts, to private prisons, to the culture of fear in Luzerne County—where every bit of school misconduct prompted a 911 call.
EMMA: The thing is, to a large extent, a lot of this is still happening. And not just in Luzerne. The juvenile courts remain closed, of course. And they absolutely should. But as far as the other abuses happening in Ciavarella's court: the conveyor belt justice, the unconstitutional guilty pleas; the rampant over-sentencing, that kind of stuff is happening today.
EMMA: In fact, just this year, the Pennsylvania Juvenile Justice Task Force released a study showing that in Pennsylvania nearly 60 percent of young people were sent to placement for misdemeanor offenses in 2018. And nearly 40 percent were sent to placement for their first offense. Because, unlike the adult court system, there are no maximum penalties in the juvenile court. Kids can be sent away at the judges discretion for virtually any violation. The judges in these other cases likely aren't accepting millions of dollars in kickbacks for their sentences, but that doesn't mean that what they're doing is right. In fact, statistically, sending kids into residential placement actually increases the likelihood that they'll get into more trouble in the future.
HILLARY: Be aware that the kids-for-cash situation is in no way unique. The only thing that's special about it is that there was a loophole that allowed us to punish someone for this behavior. But it's happening all over the country, and it's happening as a result of, you know, these attitudes that children are little monsters, and they're subhuman, you know? So just be vigilant, and be aware that this isn't unique. This isn't a unique story. This is happening in your town. You're just not paying attention.
EMMA: Hillary is 29 years old now. She's a mother—and a teacher—in Chester, Pennsylvania, about two hours from Luzerne County.
[MUSIC OUT, MOVES TO THEME MUSIC]
EMMA: Crime Show is a Spotify original podcast and Gimlet production. This episode was written and produced by Jerome Campbell and Jade Abdul-Malik, along with me, Emma Courtland. Crime Show is produced by Jerome Campbell, Cat Schuknecht, and Jade Abdul-Malik. Our senior producer is Mitch Hansen. Editing by Devon Taylor. Production oversight by Collin Campbell. Fact-checking by Nicole Pasulka.
EMMA: Theme song by So Wylie. Mixing and sound design by Daniel Ramirez. Original music by Marcus Bagala, Dara Hirsch and So Wylie.
EMMA: Special thanks to Eric Feder and WBRE in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. And an extra special thanks to the Juvenile Law Center, who fought for and ultimately overturned the convictions of more than 2,000 children in Luzerne County.