As scandals from Wall Street to Washington roil the public trust, the justice system in Luzerne County, in the heart of Pennsylvania’s struggling coal country, has also fallen prey to corruption. The county has been rocked by a kickback scandal involving two elected judges who essentially jailed kids for cash. Many of the children had appeared before judges without a lawyer.
The nonprofit Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia said Phillip is one of at least 5,000 children over the past five years who appeared before former Luzerne County President Judge Mark Ciavarella.
Ciavarella pleaded guilty earlier this month to federal criminal charges of fraud and other tax charges, according to the U.S. attorney’s office. Former Luzerne County Senior Judge Michael Conahan also pleaded guilty to the same charges. The two secretly received more than $2.6 million, prosecutors said…
Pennsylvania has the second highest number of private facilities after Florida, accounting for about 11 percent of the private facilities in the United States, according to the National Center for Juvenile Justice in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
“Once somebody is going to make more money by holding more kids, there is a pretty good predictable profit motive,” said criminal justice consultant Judith Greene, who heads a nonprofit group called Justice Strategies. “It’s predictable that companies are going to tolerate certain behaviors they shouldn’t.”
That story illustrates one of the greatest risks of what have come to be known as public-private partnerships. Yes, the profit motive gives private companies an incentive to do things more efficiently than public entities; yes, that ability can and should be utilized to cut taxpayer costs in some areas.
But for a private company, greater efficiency is only one way to generate higher profits. Other means might be less positive. In this case, the $2.6 million paid to the judges was basically treated as marketing expense, a means to generate more business and thus greater profit. Corruption is a constant danger in such arrangements.
In other areas, the search for profit might prompt a private company to cut health and safety corners that a public entity might not. In Alabama last month, a county sheriff was jailed by a federal judge because he was essentially starving county prisoners for profit.
Under a law dating to the 1920s, sheriffs in Alabama are given state money to feed their prisoners — a gaudy $1.75 a day — and sheriffs get to pocket any of that money that they don’t spend. In effect, they run their jail kitchens as a private business.
So, over the past three years, while Morgan County Sheriff Greg Bartlett was pocketing a nice $210,000 in profit, prisoners were emerging from his jail gaunt and malnourished. “
”There was undisputed evidence that most of the inmates had lost significant weight,” federal Judge U. W. Clemon in Birmingham told the New York Times. ”I could not ignore them.” Clemon jailed the sheriff until he agreed to adequately feed prisoners “more than a few spoonfuls of grits, part of an egg and a piece of toast at breakfast, and bits of undercooked, bloody chicken at supper.”
Sometimes private enterprise can do it better; sometimes it can’t. There is no one answer to every situation.