Tuesday, February 24, 2009

What Is Wrong With This Country?

OK, the main story is bad enough I suppose:

At a friend's sleepover more than a year ago, 14-year-old Phillip Swartley pocketed change from unlocked vehicles in the neighborhood to buy chips and soft drinks. The cops caught him.

There was no need for an attorney, said Phillip's mother, Amy Swartley, who thought at most, the judge would slap her son with a fine or community service.

But she was shocked to find her eighth-grader handcuffed and shackled in the courtroom and sentenced to a youth detention center. Then, he was shipped to a boarding school for troubled teens for nine months.

"Yes, my son made a mistake, but I didn't think he was going to be taken away from me," said Swartley, a 41-year-old single mother raising two boys in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

CNN does not usually identify minors accused of crimes. But Swartley and others agreed to be named to bring public attention to the issue.

As scandals from Wall Street to Washington roil the public trust, the justice system in Luzerne County, in the heart of Pennsylvania's struggling coal country, has also fallen prey to corruption. The county has been rocked by a kickback scandal involving two elected judges who essentially jailed kids for cash. Many of the children had appeared before judges without a lawyer.

The nonprofit Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia said Phillip is one of at least 5,000 children over the past five years who appeared before former Luzerne County President Judge Mark Ciavarella.

Ciavarella pleaded guilty earlier this month to federal criminal charges of fraud and other tax charges, according to the U.S. attorney's office. Former Luzerne County Senior Judge Michael Conahan also pleaded guilty to the same charges. The two secretly received more than $2.6 million, prosecutors said.

Horribile. Simply horribile.

But then they get to a list of the "crimes":

The Juvenile Law Center said it plans to file a class-action lawsuit this week representing what they say are victims of corruption. Juvenile Law Center attorneys cite a few examples of harsh penalties Judge Ciavarella meted out for relatively petty offenses:

  • Ciavarvella sent 15-year-old Hillary Transue to a wilderness camp for mocking an assistant principal on a MySpace page.

  • He whisked 13-year-old Shane Bly, who was accused of trespassing in a vacant building, from his parents and confined him in a boot camp for two weekends.

  • He sentenced Kurt Kruger, 17, to detention and five months of boot camp for helping a friend steal DVDs from Wal-Mart.

  • Catch the problem here? Trespassing and stealing are in fact breaking the laws, so one can understand how the teen got before a judge. But, what the hell was Hillary Transue doing before a judge in the first place? What part of the First Amedment do people in Pennsylvania not understand?

    At worst, Hillary Transue thought she might get a stern lecture when she appeared before a judge for building a spoof MySpace page mocking the assistant principal at her high school in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. She was a stellar student who had never been in trouble, and the page stated clearly at the bottom that it was just a joke.

    Instead, the judge sentenced her to three months at a juvenile detention center on a charge of harassment.

    She was handcuffed and taken away as her stunned parents stood by.

    “I felt like I had been thrown into some surreal sort of nightmare,” said Hillary, 17, who was sentenced in 2007. “All I wanted to know was how this could be fair and why the judge would do such a thing.”

    Yes, it's a good thing these judges are going to prison, but there is still this dim witted asshole of an assistant principal who is the reason "charges" were brought against a teenage girl for excercising her free speech rights. They should be fired, pure and simple.


    Anonymous said...

    i do belive strongly that goverment mistakes has been taken over on and over people that every one even police tax credit cards and son on we become a terrorists
    stop stupidity not meveryone its a bad person capaitalisms becomes to be in america a bad comu=munis

    Rachel said...

    Here we are, two full years later, and these jokers still haven't done a single day in jail for this very serious crime that they committed against children. Think it's an aberation and these were just a couple of bad apples for whom the cogs of justice have turned uncommonly slowly? - read up on Operation Court Broom (an FBI investigation into corrupt judges in Florida in the 1980's) some time. Also consider the fact that there are more African Americans in prison being forced to engage in profit-making work for the state today, than there were African Americans in slavery doing work for rich land owners in the 1860's. That's around one in nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34.

    Next time you're tempted to think in terms of "them" and "us" when you hear of a prisoner being abused, or an incredibly long sentence being imposed for an offence more trivial than the one committed by these corrupt judges, think of this story, and how differently those with a little power are treated by that same draconian system that jails so many of your fellow citizens with barely a second thought. The American 'justice' system is a sick joke, that those in power play on gullible and naive American taxpayers. One day, it could be you playing the part of 'criminal' in their appalling farce.

    Anonymous said...

    the school loved the VP for that very reason. they were all in with Ciavarella and they were all cheering for the most twisted admin. member. nobody cares about the kids anymore, that's absurd. screw our futures! lets make money!

    Rich Horton said...

    It sounds as if you both have first hand experience with the goings on. In both cases (i.e. the judge and the school administration) you have individuals who have power over others. That is OK, it is the nature of their jobs. However, that is also why they are restrained (or are supposed to be restrained) by the laws. Among those laws is the First amendment, and the response of the admin. was simply thuggish.

    It's sad to see not more people got upset by this story.

    Rachel said...

    “It sounds as if you both have first hand experience with the goings on”

    My experience in criminal justice matters actually comes from a different jurisdiction entirely – I worked in the Police service in the UK for some years, and got interested in a case I read about in the USA, involving a British national that had been convicted in the USA’s Federal courts and given a draconian sentence that she would never have received in the UK (she was sentenced to 24 years for a first time, non-violent offence – fraud and money laundering). It’s quite a telling fact that she was sentenced to more than double the tariff given to even the most seriously punished US soldiers in the Abu Ghraib scandal; when fraud and money laundering is treated more seriously by a country’s courts than is an actual crime against humanity, that says something about the conscience, soul and values of the judicial system concerned.

    Since my involvement in the above case (the UK national I mentioned is home now, having served 12 ½ years of that appallingly harsh sentence), I’ve kept an interest in the US justice system, and have regularly been freshly appalled at what I’ve discovered, including by this case. I don’t want to put the US down, as I’m sure most Americans are just as proud of their country as most other nationals will be of theirs, but, from what I’ve seen from the outside looking in, it seems to me that unfortunately what passes for ‘justice’ in the US is no more than gross human rights abuses dressed up as due process. Most often, the system that the US inflicts on its citizens gets away with the abuses it perpetrates by hiding behind the finer ideals that America aspires to, such as bravery and freedom; those are fine ideals, but they’re not much in evidence in American courts. When 97% of cases in Federal courts are settled by plea bargains because the accused is so afraid that even if they’re innocent the consequences of being found guilty are far more severe than purporting to be guilty, and when rape by prison staff on US citizens that have been convicted of misdemeanours is a worryingly frequent occurrence, and, lastly, when cases like this crop up where mere kids are sent to prison just to line the pockets of private prison companies and the corrupt judges that are their creatures, that’s a sad indictment of the system that tolerates those affronts to justice. Don’t get me wrong, I’m perfectly aware that the UK isn’t perfect, but we don’t allow plea bargaining (specifically because it’s been shown to lead to miscarriages of justice time and time again), and we don’t allow judges to have external financial interests in the private sector that might compromise their ability to do their jobs. Most importantly, though, we don’t have a politicised police, prosecution service or judiciary – all of which positions are elected in many states in the US and the Federal system (elections for local Sheriffs, for State Prosecutors/Attorneys, and politicised appointments of Federal Judges affiliated to specific mainstream political parties, for example). When a judge/prosecutor/cop has one eye on pleasing the baying mob that elected them and keeps them in power, that’s bad for justice; it’s merely a new form of lynching given the thinnest veneer of legitimacy.

    Anyway, here’s hoping that these particular judges get the justice they deserve, even though the denied the same to others. Let’s see if they get anything like the 24 years my friend got for their disgraceful crimes.