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In November, William Ecenbarger, a Pulitzer Prize and George Polk award–winning investigative journalist for the Philadelphia Inquirer and a Central PA resident, celebrated the release of his dramatic and important new book, published by the Free Press, at 2012’s 3rd Annual Harrisburg Book Festival.
Kids for Cash: Two Judges, Thousands of Children, and a $2.6 Million Kickback Scheme details one of the most extraordinary instances of corruption and abuse in the Pennsylvania juvenile justice system. In the shocking case that was covered by ABC’s 20/20, CNN, and CBS News, among others, two judges were convicted of accepting millions of dollars in bribes from the owners of privatized juvenile detention centers in exchange for sentencing thousands of kids—some as young as eleven years old—to jail.
William Ecenbarger provides the first book-length account of the scandal. In the tradition of true-crime legal thrillers from The Executioner’s Song to A Civil Action, Ecenbarger exposes a deeply compelling political controversy that ruined the lives of many children and ultimately led to the judges’ convictions on charges of racketeering, fraud, tax violations, money laundering, extortion, and bribery.
Kids for Cash offers an inside look at a legal system that is closed to public scrutiny, offers little or no oversight of judges, and allows children to be sentenced without benefit of legal counsel, opening our eyes to the twisted and haunting realities of juvenile justice in Pennsylvania today.
Though the two judges who accepted kickbacks have received long federal prison sentences and hefty fines from the Internal Revenue Service, the disturbing case reveals far more than just the corruption of two rogue judges.
Instead, Ecenbarger hints at a wide-spread conspiracy of silence that still exists throughout the educational and judicial systems in Pennsylvania. There remain, today, egregious short-comings in the legislature’s and state’s oversight of the judiciary. There remain the challenges of the complicit nature of overmatched school teachers and disciplinary-minded principals, the dangers of an engrained political culture that welcomes harsh sentences against offenders, and the financial exigencies of electing our judges in politicized races.
To all this, we must add the inability of achieving substantive reforms of the juvenile justice system when privatization of juvenile detention centers and “alternative education” for delinquent teenagers remains the status quo, in Central Pennsylvania just as in Luzerne County where these particular cases occurred. The same private company whose officials engaged in the illegal kickback scheme continues to manage lucrative contracts for reforming Pennsylvania’s children. And schoolchildren continue to be sent to these privatized institutions, for discipline and reform, by public school boards and Pennsylvania judges, in ways that reflect gaping class and racial disparities in the application of justice.
Kids for Cash takes readers into the personal lives of a wide array of schoolchildren who suffered under these corrupt justices and private reform institutions. Readers will despair of the children’s mistreatment. Voters should feel the urgency of caring more about the next judicial elections.
Ecenbarger’s November 2012 interview with witf’s Scott LaMar is available online in a free Radio SmartTalk podcast.
His November 2012 interview with Midtown Scholar’s owner Eric Papenfuse, followed by public questions and answers, is also available as a free podcast online at http://FamousReadingCafe.podomatic.com.
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