Friday, February 13, 2009

Disturbing News from Pennsylvania: Two Judges Make Millions Sending Kids to Prison

An article in today's New York Times describes a disturbing scheme in which two judges received kickbacks for sending kids to privately run juvenile detention centers. The judges pleaded guilty to charges of income tax fraud and wire fraud. They received $2.6 million in kickbacks for sending children with very minor charges to detention. Here's a slice of the article:
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.”
Here's another question: If the facts of Hillary's case are as simple as the article describes them, why on Earth did the prosecutor place the teenager in the criminal justice system? This looks like overzealous prosecution (or overzealous reporting).


Alessandro Machi said...

Another example of the name seeming to imply the future.


Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...


James H said...

Wonderful blog . Just linked

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Thanks, James H. I will check out yours in the morning; I need to at least try to beat the insomnia.

Anonymous said...

And what is going to happen to these two judges. I doubt much. IMO they should made examples of and they deserve no mercy and put in jail for a min of 5 years.

But I bet you they will walk. The old double standard.

Nell said...

Many juveniles appear in court without legal representation, a fact that always amazes me. If my kid were in trouble with the law, I'd beg, borrow or steal to get him/her the best lawyer money could buy.

Cocktailhag said...

Great blog; I'll keep reading.

Ken Ballweg said...

Do read the NYT article for more detail.

It's already evident that a) it's a case of systematic kickbacks to the tune of $2.6 million over a six year period for keeping a private for profit detention center filled, and b) the details of the proposed plea bargain are listed: "If the court agrees to the plea agreement, both judges will serve 87 months in federal prison and resign from the bench and bar." Because of the guilty plea they would also loose their government pensions.

Whether that's good enough for the some 5,000 youth who were detained is another question.

The problems with "for profit" corrections facilities have been that they are not proving cheaper or prone to care about the rights of the prisoners in their charge. It's difficult to believe that a system that allows $2.6 million to be diverted from it's operation budget into kickbacks was serving the youth. Something had to go in terms of their care to make that kind of money available. I can't imagine the conditions in those two centers.

Every state that has turned it's corrections system over to for profit agencies needs to take note of this and double check their oversight procedures. We have just gone through one of the most irresponsible periods where unethical profit taking without regards to the human damage has been the norm. Combine that with the underlying attitude of "being tough on crime" and you have a very volatile mix.

I suspect that once American's discover that they can't really afford to incarcerate 12 year old first time sex offenders, the majority of young African American males, and minor drug offenders at the rate they have been, we will start hearing stories of significant abuse. Abu Grabe wasn't an accident; it took place in a culture of fear that allowed it to happen. I suspect that we will find the same culture of fear that has lead to dangerously packed domestic prisons will prove responsible for many damaged lives.

But hey, their criminals right? And toughness keeps us "safe".

God I hope we are coming to our national senses.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Ken - thanks for bringing in the "prison industrial complex" discourse.

Hershblogger said...

If the punishment were to fit the crime, these judges would get sentences equal to the total of the sentences they handed out for profit. No possibility of parole.

This corruption is deadly dangerous to us all because it destroys faith in the rule of law.

Ken Ballweg: The "Abu Grabe" [sic] reference is unconnected and purely gratuitous.

And, if you are concerned about "unethical profit taking without regards to the human damage," I would be interested in your analysis of the stimulus bill. Just substitute "looting" for "unethical profit taking." In fact, ethical people approve of neither.

Anonymous said...

It is good that you have highlighted this case, but it is the tip of the iceberg.

With your talents, you might also want to investigate the situation regarding the appointment of guardians for those who are allegedly incapacitated. There is quite a bit of material out there about what is happening, and how the justice system is allowing the elderly as well as others who do need guardians to be ripped off by the unscrupulous.

The way I see it the problem is due to the use of probate judges as oversight and something is very wrong with the system.

I happen to think that part of what is wrong is that there is a lack of a duty of care - fiduciary duty - within the court system when these kinds of things are allowed to happen. I do not think that it is the courts alone, but also something to do with the legislation that has been put in place that allows the unscrupulous the opportunity to take advantage of the weak.

I have a blog on this subject, but have not kept it up to date. I did find an excellent series of articles in the Los Angeles Times on the subject.


Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Maggie - thanks for your post. I think the problem is complex. Clearly, as Nell said, the fact that many minors go through the system without lawyers is a problem. The parents saying "they were told" that their kids would get a light sentence, sounds like a lack of representation. Also, prosecutors are so hungry to get reelected, that the concept of discretion has been replaced with mandatory prosecution (at least covertly).

Hershblogger: The stimulus was the result of a democratic process in which congress decided to spend a bunch of money. These judges acted in a covert manner that deprived individuals of due process -- in the very setting where it is most important. If people do not like Congress for spending, they can elect others; children in jail do not have such freedom.

Hershblogger said...

Such as it is currently practiced, a process we call Democratic is proceeding, but it is in any case hardly transparent. The text of the bill has just been published on the Speaker's site and 3/4 of it is in unsearchable PDF format.

The House unanimously voted, no question that's bipartisan, that Representatives should have at least 48 hours to consider the content. As I write it seems unlikely this rational pause will be observed. I call "Covert" on Congress.

Also, I do not know if judges at this level are elected in Pennsylvania as they are in Michigan. This would be important to your argument, since if people do not like Judges for corrupt activities, they could elect others. That still leaves some children in jail who do not have such freedom, just as Congress is about to leave our unborn great-grandchildren in a virtual debtors prison.

Infidel753 said...

I read about this case a while back. According to the article, 5,000 defendants were sentenced by just one of these two judges. Pennsylvania could be looking at thousands of lawsuits -- perhaps enough to cripple the state, and probably deservedly so.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Hershblogger -- the procedural situation notwithstanding, you do agree that if majorities in both houses pass the stimulus package, it will will be "lawful" under the terms set out in the constitution? Budgets are typically passed in broad categories, which give the president a fair amount of discretion.

Regardless of whether the two judges were elected, due process does not mean that judges determine incarceration based on whether they get kickbacks from the corporate prison. There decision to do so is much more insidious in my eyes than the stimulus. Policy disagreements can be checked in the electoral process; a judge's sentence cannot (so long as it sits within the guidelines). They robbed these kids of their liberty for their own gain. This is despicable.

Hi Infidel. Where have you been hiding?

Hershblogger said...

Professor Hutchinson,

Well, you proposed elections (FWIW, these PA judges were elected) and covert procedures as somehow separating what these judges did from what Congress is doing. I just pointed out that those things don't, in fact, differentiate. In either case, honesty and transparency would mitigate the corruption. In both cases that's what we were promised.

The question of whether it should be considered Constitutional for the feds to mandate green golf cart technology or save mice in California marshes is another debate entirely. I acknowledge it currently is so considered.

In any case, if your point is that the incarceration of these kids is a greater insult to freedom than a trillion dollars being spent in secret - maybe, maybe not. It certainly is an abuse of power either way, and I think the spending actually does more damage to more kids over a longer time.

What the judges did is clearly criminal. What Congress did is not. That does not mean the actions aren't morally equivalent.

Ken Ballweg said...


That's the trouble with trying to get by with phonetic spelling when I don't even have the correct pronunciation. Abu Ghraib indeed.

As for the gratuitous connection part, there really is a clearer link then you are willing to credit me with. Hang on, 'cus thhis is going to be a long essay for which I apologize to Dr. Hutchinson, but, Hersh, you put a real burr up my blanket.

Americans have become a nation where too many of our policy decisions and the climate those policies are responsible for have been controlled by fear. We are dominated by a Culture of Fear which trickles down into actions that allow us to look away when judges are clearly incarcerating youth at a disproportional rate, or when inmates of a foreign prison are denied basic human rights. Fear of Communist invasions and take overs, fear of Socialism (usually tied to the first), fear of uncontrolled crime, fear of the loss of our upright, uptight Calvinist roots. It's fear generated by the, people with big big money, by the political establishment that has become beholden to people with big, big money, and amplified by the media who have learned that nothing sells so well as fear in 26 point bold headlines (or the electronic equivalent).

It's a long standing rubric of political science that any minority that wants to unify popular support for their agendas needs to scare the crap out of the masses with an outside boogie man. People will give up a lot they hold dear if they believe they will die if they don't.

Often the outside enemy happens to be a group who represent a real threat, more often the thread of a real threat is greatly exaggerated as a way to accomplish hidden agendas. Who would do such a thing in America? Using the old adage of "follow the money" will out who is profiting.

Let's start with a lightweight travesty (light only in terms of the number of citizens hurt, not light in terms of the damage done) that was largely regionalized but was sustained for generations and spawned a legacy of propaganda that continues to influence minds to this day: the use of the criminal justice system to create slave labor. Up into the 40's a large number of people, the vase majority being African Americans, were enslaved by a corrupt local justice system that profited by selling people as forced free labor in mines, plantations and factories in the south. A system so profitable that it could buy off the state and federal politicos who could/should have stopped it based on the constitutional rights of the 13th amendment. Politicos were bought, or scared by the threat of losing an election (a major reason for assuring that blacks could never vote), but what of the white public? Why in god's name would they allow this? For those who weren't directly profiting it was Fear. Fear of rape, job loss, assault, mixed marriages, and, worst of all, disrespect by the "colored class". There was more than simple racism behind such notions: there was the purposeful exaggeration of the "threat of the negro to our Southern way of life" by papers (it sold), by politicians (Jim Crow laws got them re-elcted but perpetuated the myth of blacks as dangerous - why else have the laws), and prosecutors (it kept them in work). A lot of damn lies to sustain a covert system of slavery sold to the public through the agent of Fear: "that black buck's gonna... - insert inflammatory lie of choice here making it sexual if you want it to have real zing." Yes I'm playing the race card out of the gate, because it's indisputable history and a microcosm of a poisonous process that dominates American thinking more than we are willing to admit.

In the 50's it was the greatly exaggerated threat of Stalinist Communism, not in terms of their intent, but in terms of their actual threat of invasion or ability to inspire a homegrown communist uprising of the workers or, worse, pointy headed intellectuals. Who profited aside from McCarthyites? Ike's Military Industrial Complex, and it's unchecked growth which allowed a concentration of money that has become self sustaining. The 60's and 70's greatly exaggerated the need to Fear and source of the "loss of morality" in America due to those hippies and liberals. Who profited? Again, the MIC which had a good thing going in Nam and South America, and needed to shut the peaceniks up. Since nobody's willing to go on record as opposed to peace, the strategy was point out the treat of sex, drugs and rock and roll taking over Des Moines. Again, the extent 70's radicals were a real threat was minimal compared to the rise of pornography, soft and hard core, as a well bankrolled industry and the politicians they bought. Not to mention the middle class that had learned to enjoy their new sexuality and drug use while still pretending to be pious. The Fear of radicals also underwrote a whole raft of evangelical based business that owed their growth to the Fear of Losing our Morals.

The 80's continued to exaggerate Fear of Communism (cold war as profit center), and saw a boom in moral righteousness profiters (tele-evangelism opened markets). To these we added the Fear based industries supported by "The War on Drugs" and started the era of Tough on Crime as a profit center. The irony was being told to be increasingly Fearful of street drugs, while the liquor and pharmaceutical companies did more to assure that then any Columbian cartel. Just as ironic as tales of unsafe streets and cities convinced us to "invest" in a runaway prision system, despite statistical data showing America was constantly growing safer largely, it turns out, thanks to the rise of working class incomes, and birth control.

And we can also thank the 80's for finding a way to monetize an irrational fear of taxes and reasonable regulations for business. The ones who profited from this are the same ones who controlled the Reagan agenda that grew up to be the Neo-Conservative Agenda wealth deserves more wealth regardless of the cost. Fear of "Big Government controlled by "Those Liberals" is still a powerful meme, and is code for No Taxes or Regulations on Corporations or their brethren in the Financial Casinos of Wall Street. Fear of having to give up our over consumption as a way of life, Fear of Tax and Spend Liberals as cover for massive, and eventually too successful, Ponzie schemes to loot the national treasury.

Then came 9/11 and the Fear of Terrorism as a business model. Terrorism an irrational Fear? Yes, actually, very irrational. The odds of being killed by a terrorist, while certainly present, are minimal compared to dozens of other greater more consistent threats that lack the ease of being exploited as a profit center. And Anti-Terrorism, Inc. got monetized much more rapidly than any prior exaggerated threat, but then we have created an entrepreneurial class, with supportive legislators eager to exploit the next big Fear gravy train.

So, that's been the pattern. Scare the crap out of them and take their money to make them feel safe. We have become a people so fearful we have been consistently willing to act against our own best interests. Our lives are filled with constant reminders to be afraid, be very, very afraid, brought to us daily by entities that profit by our fear. It's a Fear-filled world they are happy to tell us: If it's not a communist, it will be a socialist. If not a socialist, it will be a drug addled hippie. If not a hippy it will be an anti-war radical. If not a radical then a pornographer, or a sex offender, or gun control, or a black male (all of whom are probably gang bangers), or a Tax and Spend Liberal, or a anti-entrepreneurial bleeding heart, or a soft on crime politician, or a spotted owl slash tree hugger, or a, my god, towel headed muslim terrorist. My God, indeed; so many things to be afraid of and I've only named the obvious ones. You'll have to listen to Rush, read your NRA fliers, or watch Fox Opinions to get all the rest.

The point? The climate of that unrelenting drumming of "Be afraid, be very, very, very constantly hypervigilanitly afraid." has caused us to look the other way when our executive branch sanctions torture in the name of stopping terrorist threats , and that allows or even causes the travesties of an Abu Ghraib. That constant drumming causes us to be so afraid of being "soft on crime" that it causes prosecutors and child advocates to look the other way when one in four youth are incarcerated, for profit it turns out, while the national average is one in ten. The connection of the story of corrupt judges to Abu Ghraib is one of fear controlling what we do and what we are becoming. Fear so ingrained and so disproportionate to the real risks we are told to be afraid of, that we ignore and even actively take away basic human rights.

So, that's my basis for making the connection between Abu Ghraib and kids being jailed by corrupt judges. Perhaps a clearer connection than between it and the "ethics" of the stimulus package (which I recognize you are very, very, very afraid of.)

Hershblogger said...


I can't really deal with your whole post, but I will give you some quick reactions that I'm confident you will be able to interpolate:

Is America responsible for inmates in a foreign prison? Are you talking about the rendition polices originated by the Clinton Administration with the knowledge of Obama's new DCIA, which were expanded by George Bush and are being continued by Obama?

Or are you still equating Abu Ghraib with corrupt Pennsylvania judges? The parallel would be Pennsylvania JAILERS. You don't ever even make that connection.

The fear I've been most exposed to lately is that if we don't decide to spend a trillion dollars IMMEDIATELY, we all doomed to “catastrophe.” That rhetoric didn't scare me at all. I don't believe it and neither does Obama. He only supported FEAR after Nancy Pelosi's stimulus bill tanked on her defense of contraceptive education as economically stimulative.

Obama's point changed from focused spending to the idea that the economy can only be saved by immediate spending, profligate and unfocused though it may be. Obama's rhetoric supporting the stimulus was entirely about fear.

Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and Barack Obama just did exaggerate a threat. And they did it secretly and ideologically. Even the CBO THINKS SO.

You are contending that slavery existed in the United States into the 1940's? Uh... I'm unable to respond. I do recommend that anyone evaluating this exchange read that portion of your post, however.

Well, the good news is we produced Bill Ayers. I know that's flippant, but you really need to read _The Black Book of Communism_, in order to know what you are talking about. It's written by French Marxists based on papers released from the former Soviet Union's archives. Or you could just assay some Solzhenitsyn.

We probably agree in detail that the War On Drugs is stupid and counter-productive. I advocate legalizing them all under control of State Government. I also advocate releasing all non-violent drug-offenders.

The regulations which most recently failed us were those that McCain and Bush asked Frank and Dodd to implement. It's failure to regulate government we're suffering from.

The profit center being manipulated at the moment is Congress. It's being manipulated in the shadows by the very lobbyists we were told would no longer have any power.

I am unconvinced of any connection between rogue military jailers in Iraq and venal judges in Pennsylvania. I do get where you are coming from, though. Thanks for filling in the detail.

Anonymous said...

To Hershblogger,

Here's what Ken said, "Up into the 40's a large number of people, the vase majority being African Americans, were enslaved by a corrupt local justice system that profited by selling people as forced free labor in mines, plantations and factories in the south."

I cut and pasted it, so the spelling and other errors are intact. However, Ken's meaning is quite clear to me as a Black woman whose parents told her about that sort of slavery. Blacks are still thrown in jail for stuff that whites get wrist slaps for. But nowadays, we don't have to cut massa's cotton. . . Oh, wait! There's still Mississippi... Hmm... some prison named after an African state. Angola? You might want to research that before you ask Ken to turn his argument around to suit you.

As for getting in on that particular discussion you two are having, no thanks.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Hershblogger: does the stimulus hurt future generations any more than the enormous budget deficits created in the last eight years (fueled by huge tax cuts and enormous spending increases)? I go back to Ron Paul's precise observation, which accuses his Republican colleagues of acting like "born-again budget conservatives." Neither party has a monopoly on deficit spending that will potentially hinder future generations. On that issue, we have achieved bipartisanship! Hurray.

Hershblogger said...

Can you point me to an example transaction of "selling people as forced free labor" in the 1940s United States?

I agree that Republicans are also to blame and have criticized them many times. A longish, but fairly comprehensive, example is here:
With friends like John, who needs Bob Dole

I'd simply like it to stop, whoever is doing it. This last bit of profligacy can only be associated with Democrats, so they deserve the current criticism.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Hershblogger: I understand that Democrats are in power now; I was merely adding perspective. At times (not accusing you) the argument has fallen back into unhelpful partisan talk (my party is great; your party is evil). So I was adding perspective.

I do not know the exact content of your discussion with others on prisons and labor. But the 13th Amendment has an express exclusion for involuntary servitude as a condition of incarceration. The usage of this provision to justify free labor has followed a distinct racial and class pattern historically. I am not sure if this fits into your discussion, but I hope it adds something.

Hershblogger said...


It does add something, thanks.

On the question of the 13th Amendment provision, I would extend it to prohibit to any requirement of national service. That certainly includes conscription but would also, for example, prohibit any requirement for community service defined by the federal government.

The prison labor question is interesting. If the points made by Ken and Anonymous about slavery are to be taken seriously as an account of "legal," but immoral abuses of the freedom of American citizens, you would have to say they fall short by two decades. I think they could have made a good claim that the abuses they decry extended at least into the 60s.

That is, for the point I think they try to make, calling the 40s a time of enslavement and using the words "selling people" understates the duration of their case on the facts they could present. Why? In order to indulge hyperbolic fancy. They don't think people would buy "selling people" and "enslavement" as 60s things.

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