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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Group alleges hundreds of county youths denied lawyers

A fun destination is awaiting you, Lovely Luzerne County in the picturesque Allegheny mountains of Pennsylvania. Where lawlessness is a way of life. Come and tour or Judicial system and be amazed by how it slaps the face of the Keystone state. This is the state where the Declaration of Independence and the bill of Rights were signed yet you would never know it by the way the courts operate there.

Group alleges hundreds of county youths denied lawyers
By Terrie Morgan-Besecker tmorgan@timesleader.comLaw & Order Reporter
WILKES-BARRE – Alleging youths are being denied their right to an attorney, a juvenile rights group Tuesday filed a petition asking the state Supreme Court to intervene in hundreds of past and current Luzerne County juvenile court cases.
An attorney for the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia said the center was prompted to act after research showed that 50 percent of youths who went through Luzerne County’s juvenile court system in 2005 and 2006 were not represented by an attorney – a figure the center says is 10 times the state average.
The failure to provide even the “most minimal” constitutional protections to those youths resulted in many making admissions of guilt without fully understanding their legal rights or the consequences, said Marsha Levick, the center’s legal director and one of the authors of the petition.
“Luzerne County’s juvenile court proceedings represent the most egregious violation of children’s constitutional rights in Pennsylvania,” Levick said. “When more than half of all youth appear in court without legal representation ... something is seriously wrong and it must be stopped.”
The petition was filed on behalf of two juveniles who went through the court system in 2007, as well as all juveniles with current cases.
It alleges the county’s juvenile judge, Mark Ciavarella, and juvenile probation officials have failed to follow regulations that require juveniles be advised they have a right to an attorney.
The petition further alleges court officials violated state regulations by allowing parents to waive a child’s right to counsel without the child’s consent, and that Ciavarella has failed to question youths who entered guilty pleas to ensure they understand the ramifications of proceeding without an attorney.
The center is asking the court to vacate decisions made in all cases dating from 2005 to present in which the juvenile was not represented by an attorney. It has identified 285 cases from 2005, and 281 from 2006. The number of cases in 2007 and 2008 is not yet known.
Ciavarella acknowledged Tuesday that a high percentage of youths who come before him are not represented by attorneys. He could not explain why the numbers were so much higher than other counties.
The judge said in many cases he believes parents opt not to obtain attorneys because they know their child is guilty.
He insisted parents are advised at every step of the process that their child is entitled to an attorney, and that one will be appointed if they cannot afford one.
“It’s not like they’re walking into this blind. They are advised on three different occasions they have a right to have a lawyer present,” Ciavarella said. “If they want waive their right to an attorney, that’s their business.”
The center’s petition is based on the cases Jessica Van Reeth, now 18, and a female identified as H.T., now 17.
Van Reeth was 16 when she was charged with possession of drug paraphernalia. She and her parents allege they were never advised of her right to an attorney. She admitted guilt and was placed in a residential treatment facility for three months, even though it was her first involvement with police.
H.T. was charged with harassment in April 2007 for creating a Web page that contained derogatory information about an assistant principal at her school.
The girl, also a first-time offender, admitted her actions, was immediately carted off in handcuffs to begin serving a three months at a residential treatment facility.
The child’s mother acknowledged waiving the child’s right to an attorney, but the youth did not sign the waiver, as regulations require. The mother also claimed the child was never questioned to ensure she understood the potential consequences of entering a plea without first consulting an attorney, the petition says.
Ultimately, the child was returned home a few weeks later after the Juvenile Law Center intervened on her behalf and convinced Ciavarella to release her, based on the fact the child had not waived her right to an attorney.
Levick said the center felt at that point the issue was resolved. Since then, there have been at least three other cases in which juveniles alleged they were not afforded an opportunity for counsel, she said.
“When we got (H.T.’s) adjudication reversed we thought we wouldn’t have to do it again,” she said. “As we collected information over the next several moths, we realized we had made no difference. It apparently will take extraordinary action and extraordinary intervention by the Supreme Court to fix this.”
What’s Next
Ciavarella said he has contacted the attorney for the county’s juvenile probation department, who will file a response to the petition. The Supreme Court will review the documents and decide whether it will intervene.
Terrie Morgan-Besecker, a Times Leader staff writer, may be reached at 570-829-7179