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Court’s reversal late, but laudable

JUVENILE JUSTICE as practiced by Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. sometimes resembled the rulings of a dictator hellbent on doling out punishment, according to his critics.

Concerned that Ciavarella ignored children’s rights, the Juvenile Law Center petitioned the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for it to review the work of Luzerne County’s longtime juvenile court judge.

Thankfully, the state’s high court agreed Monday to do that. “The court views this matter with grave concern,” stated the court’s press release. That’s a much-needed reversal from a month ago, when the state Supreme Court – without explanation – had rejected the law center’s petition.

The petition noted the case of Jessica, a 16-year-old Crestwood High School student with a B average in 2006 when she was found in possession of a pipe and lighter in school. The situation has similarities to the Michael Phelps case in the media now – except she was in school and the Olympic swimming hero was not.

Jessica’s legal journey began with a 10-day school suspension, followed by an appearance in Ciavarella’s court, where she appeared without an attorney. Police and a probation officer told her and her parents she would likely receive probation, according to the petition.

The judge saw it differently.

Immediately handcuffed, the teenager who never had a school detention or previous encounter with police was ordered to spend three months at Camp Adams, a wilderness-style treatment facility near Jim Thorpe. That was followed by: loss of driver’s permit; weekly drug counseling for 10 weeks; juvenile probation home visits and weekly urine samples. Her family also had to pay court costs.

There’s no allegation that she even smoked anything from that pipe. In fact, the petition notes a court-administered urine test on sentencing day came up clean.

According to the Philadelphia-based law center, at no point did the judge ask Jessica if she understood the consequences of admission or inquire if she wanted a lawyer.

As we have said before, the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to legal counsel. Since then, case law repeatedly has required judges to advise defendants of this right.

It’s basic. It’s what separates our judicial system from most others. It defines justice.

Ciavarella and Judge Michael Conahan are rightly under the public microscope after federal authorities last weeek charged them with fraud and accused them of accepting $2.6 million in kickbacks.

It’s important to note that even though these two men have decades of legal experience, both defendants had lawyers represent them when their written plea agreements were signed. In fact, Ciavarella had two attorneys advocating for him.

It’s a crying shame that, as judge, he didn’t afford Jessica and possibly hundreds of other youths the right to just one lawyer.

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