Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=118129
Story Retrieval Date: 6/19/2013 10:25:27 PM CST
In a state almost synonymous with corruption, it’s an all-too-familiar tale.
Two judges make a secret deal with owners of for-profit juvenile detention facilities. For sale: the fate of hundreds of teenagers, locked up for crimes that usually warrant probation or community service. Their price: $2.6 million.
The catch, however, is that for once this isn’t a story about Illinois.
This scheme came to light earlier this month in Pennsylvania’s Luzerne County, a swath of the state known more for its anthracite coal mines than for sordid tales of public officials on the take.
The judges pleaded guilty Feb. 13, a suit has been filed by families of the juveniles, and state lawmakers are calling for hearings into the system.
Meanwhile, advocates and watchdogs in Illinois assure the jaded Illinoisan that something like the Pennsylvania case could not happen here.
Why? For starters, we’ve already had our scandal, about 25 years ago. It was called Greylord.
In addition, there are no for-profit juvenile detention facilities in Illinois. All centers are run by the county, paid for with public dollars. The setup in Luzerne County – in which the two judges steered kids into private facilities in return for millions in kickbacks from the facilities’ owners – is impossible here.
“You don’t have that economic motivation here, that’s for sure,” said Cook County Circuit Court Judge Sophia Hall, who presided over the Juvenile Division from 1992 to 1995. “But even past that, I just don’t see that happening here.”
Judges and child advocates say that structural safeguards, many of which were put into place after Greylord, make Illinois’ system today more vigilant and less prone to corruption.
One former juvenile court judge, Consuelo Bedoya-Witt, said the system looks out for children.
“There are checks and balances every step of the way,” said Bedoya-Witt, who spent 20 years in the Cook County Circuit Court before retiring in the fall.
Among them, she said, are mandatory legal representation for juveniles and a more transparent court process that often involves parents and community leaders.
In Pennsylvania, child defendants can waive their right to a lawyer under certain circumstances, which it appears many in Luzerne County did, though many of those cases are being reopened and details at this point are scarce.
Illinois is one of only three states that require all juveniles to be represented by a lawyer.
“Access to a lawyer – as early as possible and in every case – is absolutely crucial,” said Elizabeth Clarke, executive director of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, a statewide advocacy group. “That’s the single best way to keep something like what happened [in Pennsylvania] from happening here … Somebody needs to be paying attention and be able to connect the dots in a situation like this.”
Last month, Illinois’ already-strong legal representation laws got a boost.
A statewide study conducted in 2007 by the Bluhm Legal Clinic at Northwestern University found that juvenile defendants rarely met with their lawyer before their first court appearance. This is constitutional, Clarke said, but not the best way to make sure they understand their rights or the charges against them, or that lawyers are well-prepared.
A new law went into effect Jan. 1 requiring juveniles to meet with their lawyers before they set foot in a courtroom.
Cook County also seems to have learned from its own checkered past, which includes one of the largest judicial corruption scandals in American history.
The Greylord scandal, which broke in 1983 after a three-year federal investigation, resulted in the conviction of almost 100 judges, lawyers and court officials for fixing cases in return for political favor and, in some cases, bribes.
“It was such a rude shock,” said Jerold Solovy, the Chicago lawyer who headed a special commission appointed in 1983 to investigate the scandal and recommend reforms. “People really started taking a look and saying ‘What are we doing here?’”
The Solovy Commission, as it came to be known, made more than 200 recommendations to root out corruption and put safeguards in place.
Among those enacted: more oversight over how cases are assigned to judges; a rule requiring judges to file detailed financial disclosure statements; tougher restrictions on contact between judges and individuals involved in cases they are hearing; and frequent rotation of court officials among divisions.
In addition, watchdog groups like the Chicago and Illinois bar associations became more vigilant, Solovy said.
“Collectively, there’s a much brighter spotlight now on the courts today,” said Solovy, now chairman emeritus of the Chicago-based law firm Jenner & Block. “It may be not the most efficient court system in the world, but I don’t think it’s crooked.”
Clarke said she hopes the Pennsylvania case will call attention to some of the shortcomings of Illinois’ system. She said the state still incarcerates too many non-violent offenders and underfunds community treatment alternatives.
“We have our own set of problems here,” she said. “Thankfully, for the time being, corruption isn’t one of them.”