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.