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Embrace duty to safeguard rights

NOW THEY’RE IN a hurry. It’s about time.

The sense of urgency shown by top Pennsylvania court officials in dealing with hundreds of juveniles railroaded by two rogue judges in Luzerne County is as welcome as it is overdue.

In giving the go-ahead last week to overturn the cases against as many as 1,200 juveniles, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court began the long-delayed process of righting a grave injustice.

The court is coming to the aid of teens, and even younger children, caught up in a kids-for-cash scandal involving two judges who took payments from the former operator of two detention centers.

Juveniles who were hauled off to these facilities, after being snookered into waiving their right to an attorney, deserve to have their court records expunged – and quickly.

That’s the recommendation from Berks County Senior Judge Arthur E. Grim, who was assigned by the state Supreme Court to conduct an investigation into hundreds of the juvenile cases handled by former Luzerne County President Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr.

Ciavarella, 58, and former Senior Judge Michael T. Conahan, 56, pleaded guilty to fraud in February in connection with an alleged $2.6 million kickback scheme. They are expected to start seven-year prison sentences once the pleas are approved.

In endorsing Grim’s recommendation to quickly expunge cases against juveniles caught in Ciavarella’s web, Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille said, “The Supreme Court is committed to righting whatever wrong was perpetrated on Luzerne’s juveniles and their families.”

Harrisburg lawmakers are working on proposals that could prevent future abuses, including bills to mandate that attorneys be present to represent juveniles in court.

Having the state make restitution is another proposal – the same plea made in a pending civil suit on behalf of many of the juveniles. Two state senators, Jim Ferlo, a Democrat from Allegheny County, and Lisa Baker, R-Lehman Township, also suggest a statewide audit of the juvenile-justice system to check for similar abuses. That should happen as soon as possible.

A year ago, the high court passed up the chance to investigate why so many juveniles were being dispatched to jail. That’s a shame.

In hindsight, the court’s refusal to intervene should prompt some soul-searching. Now, though, the court is doing the right thing in embracing its duty to safeguard the legal rights of juveniles across the state.

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