The state Supreme Court has issued its final progress report on the implementation of changes recommended by the Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice, which was convened in response to the Luzerne County "kids-for-cash" scandal.
The five-page report, penned by Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, was released Monday and reviews, among other things, each of the procedural rule amendments the high court has adopted since the ICJJ issued its recommendations in May 2010, as well as those the court is either still considering or has declined to implement.
The ICJJ was established to investigate the Luzerne County juvenile justice system in the wake of a scandal that eventually led to a conviction by jury for Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. and a guilty plea for Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas Judge Michael T. Conahan on racketeering charges.
In Monday’s final report, Castille said that, despite the scandal, "Pennsylvania’s juvenile justice system has long been considered one of the best systems in the United States."
"Unfortunately, two judges in Luzerne County have caused unimaginable taint to the laudable efforts of many dedicated individuals, conduct for which those two judges presently are paying dearly," Castille said.
Conahan pleaded guilty in 2010 to one count of racketeering and is currently serving a 17-and-a-half-year federal prison sentence.
In February 2011, a federal jury in Scranton found Ciavarella guilty of 12 of the 39 counts of corruption filed against him, including racketeering, racketeering conspiracy, honest services mail fraud, money laundering conspiracy and a host of tax fraud charges. He is now serving a 28-year sentence in federal prison.
Since April 2011, according to Monday’s report, the Supreme Court has adopted nearly 60 procedural rule amendments, ranging from a prohibition on the use of restraints on juveniles during court proceedings to a requirement that juvenile court judges issue findings of fact and conclusions of law before ordering a juvenile to be removed from his or her home.
The Supreme Court has also adopted amendments requiring extensive colloquies of juveniles before allowing them to waive counsel or admit guilt and requiring judges who are notified that they are a target of an investigation by law enforcement to notify the chief justice within five days, according to the report.
Castille said in the report that the court is still considering proposed rule amendments mandating continuing legal education for juvenile court masters and hearing officers but noted that the court declined to adopt the ICJJ’s recommendations regarding mandatory education for judges assigned to juvenile cases and expedited appeals for certain orders transferring juvenile delinquency cases to and from criminal court.
Castille said there are already a number of judicial education opportunities available in Pennsylvania, which many juvenile court judges voluntarily take advantage of.
Castille said the court declined to adopt the ICJJ’s recommendation regarding expedited appeals "because of the small volume of such appeals, the arguable availability of other vehicles of review, and the opposition registered in response to a proposed procedure that was published for public comment."
But Castille said that while the court has done all it can with regard to the ICJJ’s recommendations, its job is not finished.
"While other recommendations made by the ICJJ are beyond the jurisdiction of this court and involve actions specific to the executive or legislative branches, the Supreme Court and the judicial branch will continue to improve Pennsylvania’s juvenile justice system in order to ensure that its reputation is restored and that justice is dispensed fairly and impartially," Castille said.
In addition to the rule amendments the Supreme Court adopted, Castille noted that the court has established a Code of Conduct for Judicial Employees, which, similar to the state’s Whistleblower Law, protects from retaliation employees who report wrongdoing in the court system.
The Code of Conduct also protects those employees who participate in any investigation that stems from that reporting, according to Castille.
Castille also mentioned in Monday’s report the Supreme Court’s decision to expunge the criminal records of 2,401 juveniles based on the recommendation of Supreme Court Special Master and Berks County Senior Judge Arthur Grim, who reviewed every juvenile delinquency case handled by Ciavarella and Conahan.
"The Supreme Court also assigned Judge Grim to review all victim restitution claims by those individuals affected by the delinquent conduct of those juveniles," Castille said. "That process has now been completed and victims have now been compensated by means of a special fund appropriated by the state legislature for this purpose."
In addition, according to Castille, the Supreme Court had ordered monthly progress reports from former Luzerne County President Judge Chester Muroski and current President Judge Thomas Burke.
Castille said the high court has since commended the two judges on their efforts to improve the county’s justice system, which were laid out in the Luzerne County Juvenile Justice Task Force’s October 2010 report.
"The report stands as a model for positively addressing almost every aspect of the treatment of juvenile offenders by each agency in Luzerne County having responsibility in this area," Castille said, adding that the Supreme Court has since stopped requiring the Luzerne County courts to file progress reports.