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Kidnapping By Another Name

It’s a tough thing to cover major news items in a biweekly column. The news always breaks just after you’ve turned one in, so it’ll be more than two weeks until the next one is in front of readers.

So, if for example, something truly horrendous—like judges taking kickbacks from private prison companies to jail more kids—happens when you’ve just written your last column, you think, “Well, by the time my next column is due, all that needs to be said about that will have been said. It’ll be a dead horse, thoroughly beaten.”

Only, of course, often you’re wrong.

Not that the judge-kickback travesty in Pennsylvania didn’t get covered fairly decently. It’s just that, while the details of the case made a number of people I know—people who have no rose-colored glasses about the fairness of the justice system or the depths to which people will stoop—apoplectic with rage, it still didn’t rise in the general consciousness to the level of importance of a racist cartoon about the president—or even the chimpanzee shooting the cartoon referred to.

For those who missed the story, there are two (former) judges, Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan, in Luzerne County, Pa., who have confessed to taking $2.6 million in kickbacks from private companies running two juvenile detention centers for sending more kids there for longer. They went against the recommendations of probation officers. They sentenced kids to substantial time for things like slapping a friend or making a parody Web site of a school administrator (which isn’t illegal in the first place! Hello?).

Thank god one of the kids fought and appealed and the FBI smelled a rat.

There has been some good commentary from a number of writers about how this points up the severe dangers of what Fort Myers (Fla.) News-Press columnist Deron Snyder called “capitalist punishment”—allowing prisons to be run for profit. It’s elementary: They make more money when more people are in jail. They lobby for mandatory minimum sentencing and against alternatives to incarceration. They play the “jobs” card. They have no incentives to provide real rehabilitative services to those who are incarcerated. They give kickbacks to judges.

There is no way that such circumstances can lead to less crime (and therefore no way that they can be saving taxpayers money), but it sure can destroy a lot of lives.

This is a serious point that needs to be made over and over. Perhaps the mood is right in the country right now to not be taken in by the “business is always more efficient” lie and figure out how to overhaul our justice system so it works in the long term.

But unlike my usual stance, which is to argue that we need to look more at the big picture, the system, and ask the big questions about what a news item means, I think in this case, the details deserve a little more attention.

To wit: The judges have been sentenced to 87 months in prison. So not a wrist slap exactly. Good. But they got it for pleading guilty to federal fraud and tax evasion charges. I’m sorry, but if you deprive someone of their liberty for cash isn’t that kidnapping? Do we care whether they paid taxes on money they were given in order to jail kids regardless of the facts of the case and the law?

Mind you, I have disagreements with judges all the time about whether people should be jailed (in both directions). I’m sure we all do. If judges are working within a bad law or consistently making judgments I think are biased or misled, but they have a rationale, I can get pretty worked up about it, but it’s a qualitatively different thing than what was happening here. That’s not an open-shut crime. Jail time for cash is.

And then there’s this, from the Huffington Post: “The U.S. attorney did drop a bribery investigation into the two private detention companies, presumably agreeing with the companies’ claims that the Judges demanded the money and they felt they had no choice.” Excuse me? You’re telling me you believe that a private prison corporation was the victim of extortion from two county judges? The judges threatened to do what? Start refusing to send anyone to juvy unless they got their kickbacks? Support real criminal justice reform? Give me a break.

The corporations and the judges were involved in a criminal conspiracy to imprison hundreds or more young people for cash. They should be charged as such. None of this fraud crap. This is about these kids’ lives, not the money.

The fact that some people don’t even see that part as a big problem just underscores how deeply the idea has taken root that there are “bad kids” who are bad to the core, any small infraction identifies a kid as such, and in those cases it would probably be best to just throw the book at them right then and there. Such thinking is not only creepy and conveniently selective (the same people who hold it will often go to great lengths to fight against drug or cheating consequences levied at their own kids), it’s supremely counter-productive.

So let’s not forget Luzerne County too quickly. And let’s remember that the big picture matters because of its effects on real, small-picture lives.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

www.mjoy.org

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