Developer in Pennsylvania's 'kids for cash' scandal gets year in prison

Developer of juvenile detention centers has already paid millions to settle lawsuits by teens sent to them for minor crimes.
By Frances Burns  |  April 25, 2014 at 1:20 PM
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SCRANTON, Pa., April 25 (UPI) -- A developer caught up in the "kids for cash" scandal where Pennsylvania judges sent teens to his for-profit detention centers apologized Friday as he was given a year in prison.

Robert Mericle pleaded guilty in 2009 to failing to disclose evidence of a crime and agreed to work with prosecutors in what became known as the "kids for cash" scandal in Luzerne County in northeastern Pennsylvania. His lawyers asked for a probationary or house arrest sentence at Friday's hearing, and even prosecutors said eight months would be enough.

But U.S. District Judge Edwin Kosik said at the hearing in Scranton that Mericle had committed "very serious criminal conduct." Kosik also read from a letter Mericle sent him admitting he should have "told some people to go to hell but I didn't."

"I want to publicly apologize for the wrong that I've done," Mericle said during the hearing. "I'm ashamed to be here, but I put myself here."

An investigation began in 2007 after teenagers who had been convicted in the juvenile court in Wilkes-Barre appealed to the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia. Two judges, Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan, were eventually charged.

Investigators said that Ciavarella and Conahan worked to close down Luzerne County's juvenile detention center so that teens would be sent to PA Child Care in Pittston in Luzerne County or to Western PA Child Care in the Pittsburgh area. The investigation also found the judges had given custodial sentences to teens convicted of offenses like trespassing, shoplifting and even making comments on a school principal on social media.

Ciavarella, the county's presiding judge, was convicted at trial in 2011 and sentenced to 28 years in prison, while Conahan got a 17 1/2-year sentence after pleading guilty.

In 2009, the state Supreme Court threw out hundreds of juvenile convictions.

Mericle has paid almost $18 million to settle lawsuits resulting from the scandal and provided $2 million in funding for organizations helping young people.

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