The Pennsylvania State Senate unanimously approved a bill to help reform the Commonwealth's juvenile justice system. The legislation requires children to have a lawyer present at their hearings. If they do not have one, counsel will be provided for them.
The reform package was triggered from a scheme involving two Luzerne County judges that unraveled in 2008. Judge Mark Ciavarella was found guilty of 12 out of 39 charges and sentenced to 28 years in federal prison for taking approximately $1 million in bribes in exchange for sending children to privately operated juvenile detention facilities. Judge Michael Conahan was sentenced to 17 and a half years in prison after entering a guilty plea.
In October 2009, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court dismissed 4,000 juvenile delinquency cases Ciavarella handled from January 1, 2003 to May 31, 2008.
State Senator John Yudichak (D-Luzerne County), co–sponsor of the bill, said thousands of children in Luzerne County did not have counsel present when they were charged with their crimes.
"The 'Kids for Cash' scandal not only is a stain on Luzerne County, but it's been a stain on the entire Commonwealth of Pennsylvania," Yudichak said. "For the court system to step up to the plate and now the Pennsylvania General Assembly to step up to the plate on a very fundamental principle: the right to counsel."
The bill also states that counsel at a juvenile's hearing cannot be waived. Yudichak said this part of the bill was necessary.
"In the 'Kids for Cash' scandal, many juveniles, many parents would come into the courts system expecting a very different outcome," Yudichak said.
The legislation will now make its way to the Governor's office for his signature.
Two other related bills would require the proposed Office of Victim Advocate to represent and advocate for the interests of victims of juvenile crime and restricts the use of restraints on juveniles during court proceedings, respectively.