Criminal Justice

Detention center builder in kids-for-cash scheme gets 1 year in prison

A builder of for-profit youth detention centers who bribed two Pennsylvania judges to send offenders to his facilities was sentenced Friday to serve a year in federal prison.

Robert Mericle reportedly gave $2.1 million in bribes to Michael Conahan and Mark Ciavarella Jr., two former Luzerne County judges, theScranton Times Tribune reports. The judges were accused of conspiring to shut down a county-run youth detention center, and instead send juvenile offenders to facilities built by Mericle.

According to the government, Mericle didn’t disclose to federal investigators and a grand jury that he knew Conahan and Ciavarella defrauded the government when they lied about the $2.1 million on their taxes.

Ciavarella, who presided over the county’s juvenile court system, often sent children to the facilities for minor offenses, according to the Associated Press. Kids for Cash, a documentary about the children’s stories, was released this year.

Mericle, who in 2009 pled guilty to a felony charge of withholding information on a crime, asked the court for probation or house arrest. As part of his plea agreement, Mericle placed $2 million in a fund that benefits youth agencies. According to the Times Tribune, he also settled civil claims stemming from the bribes.

The sentence U.S. District Judge Edwin Kosik gave Mericle is longer than the six to eight months prosecutors indicated would be appropriate, the Times Tribune reports.

Robert J. Powell, a lawyer who co owned the facilities, in 2011 pleaded guilty to paying Ciavarella and Conahan $770,000 in kickbacks, the Citizens Voice reported at the time . He was sentenced to serve 18 months in federal prison.

A federal jury in 2011 convicted Ciavarella of crimes including racketeering and conspiracy. The U.S. Supreme Court denied a cert petition appealing Ciavarella’s 28-year sentence in March.

Conahan in 2010 pleaded guilty to a racketeering charge. He was sentenced to serve 17½ years in prison.

After the bribery scheme was uncovered, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw out 4,000 juvenile convictions, according to the Associated Press.

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