On behalf of Jeffrey Engle at Shaffer & Engle Law Offices LLC

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has provided updates about proposed changes to the state juvenile justice process in response to the 2009 scandal involving two Luzerne County judges. Former judges Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. and Michael T. Conahan were charged with racketeering after taking nearly $3 million from the owner of two private detention facilities in exchange for juvenile commitments. Conahan pleaded guilty in 2009 and Ciavarella was recently found guilty by a Scranton jury.

Since this shocking news came to light, Pennsylvania authorities have granted thousands of expungements of criminal records for juveniles who admitted guilt, most of whom without being represented by a juvenile defense lawyer. Meanwhile, juvenile justice stakeholders have worked diligently to create safeguards against future subversions of due process and basic fairness for alleged young offenders and restore the public's confidence in Pennsylvania's juvenile court system.

The Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice (ICJJ) was created in 2009 with input from the Supreme Court, Governor and General Assembly to investigate the circumstances behind the corruption in the juvenile court of Luzerne County and recommend changes to Pennsylvania juvenile court procedures. Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently provided an update of likely changes, including:

  • Providing juveniles in the system with better notice of pending hearings and better opportunities to testify
  • Detailing the duties and training of juvenile probation officers
  • Requiring judges to provide detailed findings of fact and legal conclusions regarding juvenile detention placements
  • Creating a presumption of indigence for juveniles to provide easier access to legal counsel
  • Limiting the use of restraints in juvenile court proceedings

Other likely changes include expedited appeals of decisions to try juveniles as adults, requiring judges who are under criminal investigation to immediately notify the Supreme Court, and formalizing the process for a juvenile to enter a guilty plea.

Pennsylvania Juvenile Defense Lawyers: Helping Clients Understand the Full Consequences

Some commentators have stressed that the scandal highlighted the dangers present for juveniles who are not represented by an attorney. Personnel working within an overburdened system can be pressured to rubber stamp a juvenile status update that has incredibly serious implications for a child's future. Dedicated legal counsel can help a child protect his or her rights and also recognize the real threats to future educational and employment opportunities of juvenile delinquency status.

The foremost issue in any juvenile court proceeding should be protection of the welfare and best interests of the minor in question. For parents who are justifiably concerned about a child's alleged involvement in a property crime (shoplifting or theft), computer crimes (hacking or identity theft), drug possession or distribution, underage drinking, or sexting, a lawyer's advice can provide considerable calm and direction.