Gov. Signs 2 Juvenile Justice Bills

Dave Janoski
Hazleton Standard Speaker

Gov. Tom Corbett signed two bills Monday bolstering the rights of juvenile court defendants at the Luzerne County Courthouse, where two judges collected millions for sending juveniles to for-profit detention centers in a “kids-for-cash” scheme.

The new laws require that juvenile defendants be represented by counsel in most cases and that juvenile court judges state in open court the reasoning behind their sentencing decisions.

In 2009, the state Supreme Court invalidated about 4,500 juvenile court rulings made by former county Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr., finding that he imprisoned juveniles on minor offenses following perfunctory hearings and failed to properly inform them of their right to counsel.

Ciavarella and his co-defendant, former Judge Michael T. Conahan, are serving lengthy federal prison terms.

A former defendant in Ciavarella’s court, Hillary Transue, was among the approximately 100 people attending Monday’s signing ceremony in the courthouse rotunda.

Transue was 15 when Ciavarella sent her to a non-profit detention camp for building a Myspace page mocking an official at her high school. She and her mother unwittingly signed away her right to counsel before appearing before Ciavarella, she said.

“It was easier to put kids on a treadmill to incarceration if there wasn’t an attorney there to argue with,” said Transue, whose complaint to the Juvenile Law Center, a Philadelphia legal advocacy group, helped generate the court case that invalidated all of Ciavarella’s juvenile court decisions from 2005 through 2008.

“If this law existed six years ago, I would have had an attorney and we wouldn’t have had to go through all the things we suffered,” said Transue, who is now 20 and studying English education at Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire.

Corbett was introduced Monday by state Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Dallas, the primary sponsor of the two bills, which passed unanimously in the General Assembly.

Corbett signed the bill requiring counsel for juvenile defendants Monday and held a ceremonial signing of the other bill, which was officially signed last week.

“Four years ago, Pennsylvanians witnessed a scandal that shocked the conscience. Now, we are taking action to prevent future injustice against our children,” Corbett said.

The bill requiring counsel would allow juveniles older than 14 to waive the right to legal representation, but only in limited circumstances. The bill assumes that all juveniles are entitled to court-appointed counsel if they are not represented by private counsel, regardless of the financial resources of their parents or guardians.

County courts would pick up the cost of court-appointed lawyers. The bill does not include state funding for those costs, Corbett said.

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