Criminal Law

Judges Plead Guilty: Youth Sentencing Kickbacks

Operation Greylord. Bernard Madoff. Charles Keating. Pyramid schemes. All conjure up images of people who viewed themselves as above the law by abusing their positions of power to take money from unsuspecting, trusting citizens. Two Pennsylvania judges have pleaded guilty to taking something even more precious: liberty. And who they chose as their victims was even more shocking: juveniles under age 18.

In the Pennsylvania scandal, two court judges pled guilty to being involved in a kickback scheme where minors with no prior records, charged with minor offenses, were given harsh sentences which included extended stays in youth detention centers. Authorities believe that hundreds of youths were caught in this trap. The emotional impact of this bad behavior remains to be seen.

Juvenile Proceedings Closed to Public

Generally, juvenile court proceedings, even though they take place in courtrooms, are closed to the public. The organization of cases affecting juveniles varies from state to state, but generally the cases are of two types: 1) abuse and neglect, and 2) juvenile delinquency.

The first type involves charges filed by a prosecutor, alleging that a parent has abused or neglected their child. This process involves strict deadlines and standards for required findings and can lead to a parent's rights being terminated.

The second type involves charges filed by a prosecutor against a juvenile for some criminal act, ranging from a curfew violation to theft to battery. In some instances, the prosecutor may charge the minor as an adult. This means that the court file and the courtroom proceedings would be open to the public, just like adult criminal proceedings.

Juvenile Sentences Can Be Harsh

Minors who are charged with crimes in a juvenile proceeding might assume that their sentences will be less harsh because of their age. However, there will be negative consequences from the criminal proceedings and a minor and his parents or guardians should not take the charges lightly. When possible, the minor's parent or guardian should consult with an attorney about the benefits of the minor being represented by counsel in the case.

A number of factors will influence juvenile delinquency cases. These include:

  • The minor's age and prior record;
  • The seriousness of the conduct;
  • The strength of the prosecution's proof; and
  • The likelihood of deterrence or rehabilitation

Whether strong family support and guidance is available and consistent will impact whether, and for how long, the minor is sentenced to a detention center.

The judge may be concerned if it appears that the minor does not take the charges seriously, or has committed multiple offenses within a short time period. In such cases, the judge may sentence the minor to serve time in a juvenile detention center.

If, however, the minor has received a harsh sentence without having been represented by counsel, and later retains an attorney, the attorney may ask that the judge reconsider the sentence. Various arguments might be advanced, such as the punishment is out of proportion to the offense or doesn't adequately account for the minor's lack of prior record.

Report Suspected Abuse

Because they are out of public view, court proceedings affecting minors are not subject to the same degree of public scrutiny as are other court cases. In the event that you suspect that the judge, attorneys or prosecutor are conducting themselves improperly or unethically, you can report their conduct to the appropriate regulating body. Each state has its own version of these reporting offices. For judges, they are known by names such as the "Judicial Inquiry Board". For attorneys, they may be known by names such as the "Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission" or the "Office of Lawyer Regulation".

Information about when and how to lodge a complaint or make a report is usually found online. Such reports are significant to the reputation of attorneys and judges, however, and should be pursued only when there are genuine concerns, and not for improper purposes such as to obtain a strategic advantage or to exact revenge.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • If my child is facing juvenile delinquency charges, can the decision be appealed?
  • My minor child, a teenager, was sentenced to a juvenile detention center and I'm very concerned about his safety. Couldn't he be sentenced to detention at home? What can I do?
  • My teenager's case was removed from juvenile court and he's being tried as an adult. Is there anything that can be done to get the case back in the juvenile system?
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