Bradford County District Attorney Dan Barrett: Guest Column: Where is the justice?
The start of May has been designated Law Week by various organizations of lawyers. Our local Bar Association will observe the week by presenting "Kids for Cash," a documentary film about the shocking juvenile court scandal in Luzerne County.
The film will be shown to the public at 7 p.m, on Thursday, May 8, at the Keystone.
The scandal was like a tornado, whipped up when two problems collided. The first was the unusually harsh juvenile justice program in Luzerne County. It was directed by a judge who found popularity for his programs. The second was money. Two judges chose to accept money from the developer and operator of the detention centers - the same places the court was filling with juveniles.
The documentary should shake us out of the attitude that this was simply another chapter of "greed-and-graft in the hard coal country."
Certainly, the graft aspect was remarkable. In modern times where everything is traced or can be traced, it's hard to imagine that anyone - or any two - could think that the evidence might not be discovered. Modern life has many versions of those 200 cameras at Walmart - the crime will be recorded, it's just a question of who looks at the recording.
What is truly disturbing is the draconian juvenile court. Was the will of the judge so strong that no one in the system fought it? Most of the juveniles waived having defense attorneys. Their parents didn't know how or why to fight for them. The appeals courts didn't offer much relief because of the time it takes to have an appeal heard.
It's surprising that the tax payers didn't protest. Juvenile detention costs a great deal more than adult jail. The cost to Luzerne County must have been appalling. Luzerne courts put kids away at three times the state average.
The documentary doesn't spend much time on the financial cost, but it covers the human cost - there were thousands of cases where young people, rightly or wrongly, consider themselves victims of the court. Worse, many minors and their parents will blame the Luzerne County court for their problems. The most bitter parent shown in the film seems to demonstrate a fair degree of misplaced anger.
While no one working in the Bradford County system considers the greed-and-graft as likely to happen here, the other half of the storm can happen anywhere, and in many forms.
Some in the system - and I am one - find the horror in the film to be the "kids-for-votes" part. Our fear is not our judges. It is our voters, the legislature and Congress. Federal pressure or public anger can lead to legislation that sounds good, but isn't practical.
Badly-drafted legislation led to my first trip to Pennsylvania's Supreme Court. The legislature enacted a Vehicle Code provision to avoid losing some federal funding. The kinks in Pennsylvania and New York law became twisted in the federal plan. A $200 New York traffic violation with no suspension was going to result in a license suspension for a year to a Pennsylvania resident. It took five years and hundreds of court cases before the Legislature came up with amended legislation.
There are examples of similar mistakes in our criminal laws as well. I could write a book, because dealing with criminal laws is my day job.
Some of these issues go back 2,000 years. Want to read about frustration with crime? Try Genesis 19. Want to read about letting public anger substitute for justice? Try Matthew 27:20. Those Bible readings give ample reason to recall the troubling questions in Kids-for-Cash. Here they are:
First, the hard line: The Lord knows how frustrating it is to deal with the criminal element. See Genesis 18 and 19. God told Abraham that he'd had enough. He was going to annihilate the population of two evil cities. Abraham was able to have God agree that he would hold off if there were a few innocent inhabitants. God agreed. He waited until the innocent left. The innocent were Abraham's nephew, Lot, and his family. (This is the oldest reference to the presumption of innocence - not risking punishing the innocent, even if the guilty might not be punished.)
Second, pandering for votes: Like the modern juvenile court judge, Pontius Pilate was a Roman governor that wanted to keep his job. He decided to go along with public opinion when: "the chief priests and elders persuaded the multitude they should ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus." (Matthew 27:20).
We thank the editor for the opportunity to discuss our project, and the theater for its cooperation.
Daniel J. Barrett is president of the Bradford County Bar Association.