Thank you for your service on the Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice. Each of you reflects the bi-partisan and balanced approach we believe is needed to bring remedies and reforms to the judicial system. The commission has hard work ahead. We all know you care about the system, and we know you will do the right thing.
The perspective I offer today is first and foremost that of a resident and taxpayer of Luzerne County. Not a week goes by without another revelation of how widespread and deep-rooted corruption is. Not a day goes by without public expressions of anger, dismay, and frustration over the corruption and the lack of remedies.
Those who live outside of Luzerne County may have trouble fully realizing how thoroughly Judges Ciavarella and Conahan have brought disrepute on the judicial system, discredited state and county government, and diminished public trust. These hearings are essential forums for allowing families, citizens, and organizations to register their emotional perspectives and push for what they believe must be done.
In the court of public opinion, all three branches of state government are judged guilty, whether for not detecting the long-running corruption or for turning a blind eye to the warning signs that things were seriously amiss.
My purpose today is not to find fault or assign blame. Nor is it to overlook the well-established reputation of what is, in most ways, a very fine juvenile justice system. I am here to impress on you the imperative for reform. In this case, reform means picking off a list of choices that many have disliked or discounted. The question is no longer one of preferred policy. The corrupt judges too easily exploited the system, so substantial safeguards must be put in place.
The members of this commission bring high levels of qualification and commitment to this assignment. That is what gives hope to a skeptical public that strong recommendations will result, protecting against a repetition while beginning to restore public confidence.
The questions this commission has to confront are tough and hard and unpleasant. But this is a time for serious soul-searching, not sugarcoating, and not circling the wagons.
How could this level of corruption go on for so long, and no one in an official capacity intervened? How is it that complaints that today are known to be valid were waved off until the moment the feds made their announcement? How is it that injustice could be misconstrued as tough justice?
We cannot write this off as a horrible situation unlikely to recur. The lesson is that someone has to keep an eye on things. As the public understands the current situation:
**The Supreme Court, at the top of the pyramid of the unified judicial system, does not have the capacity to keep watch over 67 county courthouses.
**The state bureaucracy does not have time to sift through whatever data is being produced, to check for warning flags, insufficiencies, or inaccuracies.
**Various players in the juvenile justice system and county government are either intimidated or acquiescent.
**For reasons that revolve around a desire to protect privacy, access to the proceedings is barred to the media, denying an independent set of eyes.
The more that the system is shaded from scrutiny, the higher the risk that things will go wrong again, anywhere someone decides unjust gain is more important than just decisionmaking.
You will be presented with a lot of constructive material for assembling a solid set of recommendations. The Juvenile Law Center will be a prominent source. There is an Advocacy Alliance compiling an extensive list of reform ideas generated from the community. Not all of it will work, but some of it surely must be tried.
When I raised the issue of mandatory counsel, there was some strongly negative reaction from within the system. But the practical question is this – if counsel is not viewed as necessary, how do you prevent another episode where counsel is aggressively discouraged and the rights of individuals trampled? Remember, the Luzerne County judges had a process that was time-efficient and cost-effective, but was also massively unjust.
The same sort of reaction was received to the suggestion of media access. Elsewhere in state government, changes approved in recent years opened the system to greater public scrutiny, with the media a central player. Certainly, the open records law is illustrative. It grows harder to defend denying media access to judicial proceedings in the face of appalling corruption.
Some of those implicated, and some who were merely part of the process, have described the atmosphere of intimidation that permeated the courtroom and the courthouse. That means a variety of professionals gave in to the intimidation. What is to be done about the instances where counsel was present, but did or said nothing?
If sufficient data are being collected, then somebody has to analyze it to see where things are way beyond the norm. Even though the numbers being reported by Luzerne County were seriously out of whack with the experience in other counties, the judges were seemingly confident that no one would notice or feel compelled to act. Since the two judges left the bench, the trend has turned sharply toward alternatives to incarceration, consistent with national direction. Somebody should have looked into why the two judges increasingly were relying on incarceration, when the prevailing thinking held otherwise. The question also has to be asked in the wake of the judges’ ethical and financial tangles – does the review of the ethics statements and financial disclosure documents judges file need to be more thorough? A cursory look is not good enough.
Judge Arthur Grim is clearly the right person at the right time for reviewing the cases. His work will provide needed answers for fairly structuring the compensation that Pennsylvania is obliged to provide for the kids and families caught in the corrupt practices. They are owed much more than a profuse apology, which does nothing to repair disrupted lives.
From the outset, I believed that Pennsylvania must establish a compensation fund to pay for education, training, and counseling needs of the kids who were victims of injustice. Families had to pay costs associated with improper commitments, and perhaps for inappropriate diagnoses after that. Fairness demands that they should recover these costs. The review of the cases proves this is warranted, and provides information that should help in structuring a responsible program.
Obviously, the biggest obstacle in a time when budgets are taking a beating will be on deciding appropriate and viable funding sources. The recommendations of the commission in this regard are very important. The idea has surfaced of an assessment on lawyers, and there might be virtue in that.
On the plus side, Pennsylvania already has an effective agency that can help fill the breach – the Juvenile Court Judges Commission. There is no doubt as to their capacity or their diligence. We have to make sure they have the resources to do all that we will ask of them in the future.
The final reform is one that cannot be accomplished through law or rule. It is purely a matter of attitude. There were heroes in this tragedy, individuals and groups who tried to raise warnings. The system could not, or would not, hear the complaints. As we are learning, some thankfully persisted and shared their misgivings with the feds. The point is, confidence that the justice system is so ethically moored and so superbly supervised as to rule out corruption has proved horribly misplaced. The judicial system has to learn to listen better to those who it is supposed to serve and protect. In the same way that legislators have had to listen better and be more responsive to constituents in recent years.
Changes must be made. Decisions on those changes cannot await the completion of every investigation and the imposition of every sentence. There was significant, extensive, and extended wrongdoing that denied kids fundamental constitutional rights and undermined the confidence people must have in the fair administration of justice. There may never be another time where it is so crucial to make a forceful statement and to take decisive action to ensure fairness in juvenile justice and accountability in judicial administration.
I have thought about this long and hard for many months. I have had a lot of deep conversations with people inside and outside of juvenile justice. And I have listened to some very painful stories from those victimized. For anyone who is satisfied with the status quo, I have one final question – do we really want a Commonwealth where we rigorously track every dollar that moves through casinos, but where we casually lose track of the constitutional rights of thousands of kids in our juvenile justice system?
This commission has the power, and the vision, to begin righting these wrongs, and to begin healing a juvenile justice system that must be the best Pennsylvania has to offer in every county.
Contact: Jennifer Wilson