The Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice has concluded its extensive investigation and public hearings. Their report is chilling in its depiction of calculated corruption and compelling in its call to action. Judge Cleland and the other commission members have rendered superb service to the cause of quality justice in our Commonwealth. Thankfully, their individual efforts are not ended, because they will be advocates for the changes believed necessary.
Their diligence needs to be matched by follow-through on the part of all three branches of state government. By starkly detailing the breakdown of the system, by casting the net far and wide for reform recommendations, by reaching agreement on twenty categories of recommended changes, the commission made it very hard for any part of state government to be indifferent to the situation.
As we know, our offices are inundated with reports on every subject imaginable. If there is one that qualifies as a must-read, this is the one.
In answering questions about how a good system could go so wrong, Judge Cleland used powerful words – greed, incompetence, intimidation, abdication of responsibility.
There was a conspiracy of corruption led by two judges. There was a conspiracy of silence within the courthouse. There was a conspiracy of acceptance within too much of the community.
Indisputable is that assembly-line injustice adversely affected over 6,000 kids and their families.
There is a lesson here about the moral bankruptcy that can result from overzealous and mindless application of zero-tolerance policies. Policies from which judgment is subtracted turn out less than just.
Without functioning checks, there is no balance. Out-of-whack data reported from Luzerne County should have had red flags waving and alarm bells going off. Numbers do not self-indict. Someone in a position of responsibility has to analyze the data and challenge what does not seem right.
The collapse of ethics and oversight was so complete that it was left to a Philadelphia-based advocacy group – the Juvenile Law Center – to raise objections and ultimately trigger investigation.
There are implications in every direction. For instance, steps must be taken to ensure that crime victims are not victimized again by the remedies for corruption.
Our constitutional responsibility to establish a fair system of justice warrants action. We may not adopt every one of the recommendations, or we may do them in waves, or we may choose changes beyond what the commission recommends. But we must consider and decide what we will do to compensate for the breakdown in justice, to prevent a repetition, and to restore public confidence.
The people of Luzerne County, the juvenile advocacy community, the broad swath of Pennsylvanians who care very deeply about quality justice, all have high expectation that action will be forthcoming.
For the Senate, the Judiciary Committee hearing set for tomorrow by Senator Greenleaf is a quick and appropriate start.
A recent editorial cartoon drew a parallel between the disastrous oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico and the Luzerne County kids-for-cash scandal. One is an environmental catastrophe; the other a civic catastrophe. There is a horrible stain on a juvenile justice system that was highly regarded nationally. Thus, injustice has also been visited on the highly capable and highly ethical individuals devoting their professional lives to juvenile justice.
We talk a great deal about doing things to help kids. This is our chance to make a difference, to protect kids in the manner juvenile justice is meant to. Although said in another time for another purpose, the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. have meaning here: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The excellent work of the Interbranch Commission, and the substantial reform recommendations they produced, give us a way to prevent the incredible injustices in Luzerne County from threatening the juvenile justice system elsewhere in the Commonwealth.
Contact: Jennifer Wilson