Pa. agency backs child law group in petition

The Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ In a rare move, the state Department of Public Welfare complained to the state Supreme Court on Monday about the treatment of children in Luzerne County juvenile court.

The juveniles are often denied their constitutional right to lawyers and are disproportionately sentenced to ill-advised, out-of-home placements, the agency said in a legal brief.

"The practices in Luzerne County are likely having a harmful effect on the court-involved juveniles, their families and in turn the Luzerne County community," Chief Counsel Allen Warshaw wrote in the brief.

The amicus brief was written in support of a similar petition filed last month by the Juvenile Law Center, a Philadelphia-based advocacy group, which asked the state Supreme Court to intervene.

According to data collected by the Juvenile Court Judges Commission, Luzerne County sentenced one in four juveniles to out-of-home placements from 2002 to 2006, compared to a state average of 10 percent.

"That dramatic differential suggests that many of Luzerne County out-of-home placements were inappropriate and therefore harmful," the agency's brief said.

The department funds half the cost of juvenile detention, and a higher percentage of treatment costs. Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella, in recent remarks to the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, questioned if the state was supporting the petition to lower its costs.

Agency spokesman Matthew Jones denied the allegation.

"It's a really unusual thing for the department to do," Jones said Monday, referring to the amicus brief. "The importance of the liberty interest of the youth here, and their right to be represented by counsel when accused of a crime ... compelled us to support the petition."

In 2005 and 2006, more than half of about 1,100 juvenile defendants who appeared in Luzerne courtrooms were not represented by lawyers, according to state data.

The county is expected to file its formal response to the law center's petition this month.

Ciavarella, who presides over the vast majority of the county's juvenile hearings, told The Associated Press last week that the juveniles and their families are advised several times in the process of their right to a lawyer.

He said that he cannot force families to hire counsel.

"I don't necessarily know it's a problem if parents and children are advised of their rights," Ciavarella told The Associated Press. "We're not denying their rights here."

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 40 years ago that juveniles have the right to counsel. In 2005, the state Supreme Court adopted rules that said only the child — not a parent — can waive the right to counsel. The rules also order the judge to determine through questioning that the juvenile fully understands the decision.

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