The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has taken a big step in restoring confidence in the juvenile justice system.
Last week Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille appointed Berks County Senior Judge Arthur E. Grim to review the cases of 2,500 juveniles sentenced by then-Luzerne County Juvenile Court Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. between 2003 and 2008. Judge Grim's mandate is to right "whatever wrong was perpetrated on Luzerne's juveniles and their families."
Judge Castille's order applies to first-time offenders who appeared before Judge Ciavarella without counsel and convicted of minor crimes. This could mean about half of the 2,500 cases. According to a report to the court by Judge Grim on Judge Ciavarella's corrupt tenure, juveniles in his court could expect "routine deprivation of children's constitutional rights to appear before an impartial tribunal and have an opportunity to be heard."
Mr. Ciavarella and then-Luzerne County Judge Michael T. Conahan pled guilty to taking $2.6 million in bribes from two juvenile detention centers that directly benefited from contracts worth millions. Both will spend 87 months in prison for corruption. The harm that they did will take time to correct, but Judge Grim has the power to overturn and expunge convictions on an individual basis.
The case of 16-year-old Charlie Balasavage is particularly egregious. The young man has spent 600 days in detention for buying a stolen scooter despite not having a criminal record. Mr. Balasavage insists he bought the scooter from a relative and didn't know it was stolen. He was escorted from Judge Ciavarella's court straight to detention and has remained there ever since.
It would be a shame if Charlie Balasavage and others like him spent another day locked up if it is now in the court's power to free them.