Committee Approves Juvenile Justice Bills

(HARRISBURG) – The Senate Judiciary Committee today approved legislation sponsored by Senator Lisa Baker (R-20) to reform the juvenile justice system and protect the fundamental rights of kids entering the system.

Baker’s bills will:

  • Eliminate waiving counsel in juvenile delinquency hearings
  • Create a victim advocate devoted to juvenile justice
  • Require judges to state on the record the reasons behind disposition orders
  • Prohibit shackling of juveniles in the courtroom

Senator Baker was joined by Senator John Yudichak and Sandy Fonzo, who’s son Edward Kenzakoski was among the juveniles sentenced by Judge Ciavarella. She shared with the committee her personal story of how this injustice has impacted her family.

Senator Baker’s remarks to the committee follow:

Our justice system is supposed to safeguard rights and protect people. Yet, because of unimaginable judicial corruption in Luzerne County, we find ourselves debating ways to protect our kids from abuse at the hands of the juvenile justice system.

The recent trial of former judge Mark Ciavarella underscored why. This individual violated his oath of office, trampled constitutional rights, railroaded kids into detention for the most minor indiscretions, and had thousands of sentences vacated because of gross misconduct. This same individual felt vindicated and victorious because the jury convicted him on twelve very serious counts of racketeering, money laundering, and conspiracy, but not extortion or bribery. Decent, law-abiding people in our community feel assaulted again by his actions and demeanor.

Judge John Cleland, who chaired the Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice, declared the corruption “a systematic breakdown in the rule of law.”

The Interbranch Commission, through their intensive investigation and introspection, provided the finest example of public service in my experience. They produced dozens of well-thought recommendations for reform. Even so, most people in our area are convinced the requirement for counsel is the cornerstone of reform, and the surest remedy to ward off wrongdoing. The federal prosecutors acknowledged that the remedies needed to be done in the Legislature.

The Senate passed a mandatory counsel bill last session. The House of Representatives did not take it up. Today, the effort begins again. This is a better bill, because of expert advice from people devoted to quality justice.

Some of the very best individuals in juvenile justice express misgivings about a mandatory counsel requirement. As we have worked this issue, we deal constantly with honorable people who see the system at its best. The human disaster inflicted on Luzerne County is beyond their ability to comprehend. Those determined to pervert justice, do not share insight into where the system is vulnerable and how power can be exploited.

Nothing I can say, nothing I can show you, matches the persuasive power of someone who saw a special life destroyed by a corrupt judge. Sandy Fonzo, who suffered a heart-breaking tragedy no parent ever should, graciously agreed to tell her story. She comes here with the purpose of making sure that no child is ever subjected to severe injustice. And because she has hope, and perhaps faith, in our capacity and commitment to do what is right and necessary – to restore the meaning of juvenile justice.

Contact: Jennifer Wilson
(570) 675-3931