Juvenile court complying with changes

Blair County’s juvenile justice system is in compliance with changes recommended by a commission appointed in 2010 to investigate the “kids-for-cash” scandal in Luzerne County, according to Jon Frank, deputy director of the juvenile probation office.

In an eight-page report released this week, the chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Ronald D. Castille, said the statewide commission that investigated the Luzerne scandal made a series of recommendations.

The chief justice said his court and the Pennsylvania Administrative Office of the Pennsylvania Courts “took positive action,” implementing 57 rule changes in the state’s juvenile justice system.

They included: barring the use of restraints on children in the courtroom, unless safety is an issue; having defense attorneys present during juvenile court proceedings; having juveniles develop a colloquy on the specifics of their case before pleas are entered; creating an expedited appeal process when a juvenile is removed from his home; and strengthening the ethical obligations of juvenile court prosecutors.

Frank said Blair County has been a leader throughout the state in the handling of cases through the court system and in the development of juvenile justice programs.

He said Blair instituted many of the state’s recommendations even before the statewide Interbranch Commission, headed by McKean County Senior Judge John M. Cleland, who presided over the child sex abuse trial of Jerry Sandusky, made its recommendations.

For example, Frank said that his office works with the office of Sheriff Mitchell Cooper to predetermine if children going into the court will be shackled or placed in a restraint belt.

He also said that his office and the judges have agreed that when the judge meets with a child or his family in chambers to review the progress the child is making, the child’s attorney and the prosecution are informed.

Frank said a child’s case must be reviewed every six months, whether he or she is in treatment or on probation.

Also local officials are attending conferences involving the treatment of juveniles in the court system. Blair County Assistant District Attorney Deanne Paul, appointed recently to handle juvenile cases for the DA’s office, was in training in late March, and Judge Elizabeth Doyle, who presides over the county’s Juvenile Drug Court, was in training for three days this past week.

Frank said the county staff has frequent meetings about procedures and he credited Nancy Williams, the office director, with having the county juvenile office on the “cutting edge” of new developments.

The Luzerne County scandal involved two judges handling juvenile court cases who received kickbacks for placing children in placement, often without hearings. The judges, Michael Conahan and Mark Ciavarella, are serving federal prison time. The investigation resulted in the expungement of criminal records for 2,401 juveniles.

“Unfortunately, two judges in Luzerne County have caused unimaginable taint to the laudable efforts of many dedicated individuals, conduct for which those two judges presently are paying dearly,” Castille stated in his report.

Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.