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Ciavarella made it a habit to dole out harsh sentences for petty crimes, and then received a payment for each kid he sentenced. The scam was known as "Kids for Cash" and it inspired a documentary by the same name which airs Friday.
For those of you who didn't suffer through three years of law school, let me give you a brief overview of the scope of the legal harm here. Judge Ciavarella violated the constitutional rights—those are the big ones—of each of the kids he sentenced under this scam. Those kids were denied their fundamental rights to legal representation, as well as the right to enter a plea intelligently. Thus far, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has tossed out 4,000 convictions issued by Judge Ciavarella from 2003 through 2008.
When you ruin kids' lives to line your own pocket, no amount of prison time is long enough.
And then there was the social harm. The kids that Judge Ciavarella had locked away carried the shame and stigma of juvenile incarceration throughout their teen years. The New York Post reports that Hillary Tranuse, 14, (pictured above) was sentenced by Judge Ciavarella. Her crime? She created a humorous MySpace page mocking her vice principal. One parent said that his step-son's sentence ruined his life. Judge Ciavarella stole from countless children what they can never get back: a childhood unblemished by unjustified incarceration time.
Judge Ciavarella's punishment for his crimes? 28 years in prison. Countless young people harmed irreparably, and he gets to walk away with less than three decades of prison time. It seems paltry to me in light of the harm he committed when he was abusing his power for his own financial gain.
While his attorney argued in a brief filed in federal court that the negative media coverage caused by the scandal was punishment enough for Judge Ciavarella, there are dozens of affected families who beg to differ. When you ruin kids' lives to line your own pocket, no amount of prison time is long enough. But 28 years will have to do—the rest of the punishment he richly deserves will have to come outside the legal system.