Senior Judge John Cleland caught a preview of the new movie “Kids for Cash” and had mixed reactions: “Powerful and accurate, at least as I understand the facts,” he wrote in an email, then adding “as far as it went.”
Cleland, of McKean County, chaired the Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice, formed by the state Legislature, to figure out why the scandal the movie recounts happened and what should be done to stop a recurrence. The commission conducted hearings, examined reports and records and offered extensive recommendations.
After seeing the film, Cleland noted, “It does not include the responses of the legislature, executive and (state) Supreme Court, or the local court system, to the council. It did occur to me that the audience might be asking ‘well, what happened next?’ ”
So he had a report drawn up that answers that question. Juvenile Court Judges’ Commission Executive Director Jim Anderson crafted a 21-page report giving an overview of the scandal and the formation of the Interbranch Commission, then delving into details of the various changes spawned by the scandal that brought down two Luzerne County judges at the heart of the the non-fiction film premiering locally today.
Anderson also distilled his report into a succinct sheet of “key points,” including:
• A state Supreme court order, made at the recommendation of Special Master Senior Judge Arthur Grim who was appointed to review the situation, that vacated delinquency adjudications for about 2,400 children who appeared before then-Judge Mark Ciavarella between Jan. 1, 2003, and May 31, 2008. Their records were expunged.
• Adoption of nearly all 44 recommendations by the Interbranch Commission. “Those recommendations that have not yet been adopted,” Anderson wrote, “are still under consideration.
• A change in the rules of Juvenile Court Procedures that eliminated shackling of juveniles in court — a common practice in Ciavarella’s courtroom as attested to by children and parents in the movie — “except in the most extreme cases of disruptive behavior.”
• A change in procedure rules to ensure that juveniles have an attorney at all important hearings. Ciavarella had thousands of children appear at his bench without representation by having them sign waivers before he even met them, another fact chillingly recounted by those in the movie. Under the new rules, all juveniles are presumed “indigent,” meaning they are entitled to a public defender, and “the waiver of council by juveniles has been virtually eliminated,” Anderson wrote.
• Procedure rules were changed so that a juvenile can’t enter an admission of offense unless a mandatory “written admission colloquy form” has been completed with an attorney and reviewed by the court. Such a colloquy is designed to make sure a defendant making an admission of guilt understands what that means and the consequences, and is doing so voluntarily. While the word “colloquy” isn’t used in the film, the juveniles and parents talk of being blindsided by the results of their decision to admit to an offense.
• Judges are now required to explain publicly, in court and prior to a disposition, the reasons for their decisions. While such explanations are routine in adult courts, they were rare in Ciavarella’s court.
• The movie repeatedly makes the point that juveniles who appeared before Ciavarella could and did often end up stuck in the system for years with little recourse for appeal. New rules of appellate procedure “now provide a mechanism for the expedited review of out-of-home placement orders if the judge does not state the reasons for the out-of home placement on the record in open court,” Anderson wrote.
• A change in the rules of judicial administration requires that “Any judge who learns that he or she is the subject of a state or federal criminal investigation must notify the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.”
• While not discussed in the movie, testimony at Interbranch Commission hearings showed training and education in juvenile law and procedures seemed spotty at best. Anderson notes that “enhanced continuing education in juvenile law is being provided for judges, masters, prosecutors and defense attorneys.”
While those are the highlights, the full report details how the changes rippled through all aspects of the judicial process, changing rules relating to summons, shelter care hearings, protective custody, notice of a hearing provided to a crime victim, and handling and dissemination of juvenile court and probation records, to name a few.
And the report lists a string of laws, many sponsored by Luzerne County legislators, that protect juvenile rights, attempt to make out-of-home placement of juveniles deemed delinquent a last resort, and require collection and analysis of juvenile court data to determine effectiveness of programs and practices.