Community members gathered Saturday, September 27, in Wilkes-Barre’s Kirby Park for support and outreach to anyone afflicted by the injustice of Luzerne and Lackawanna counties’ judicial systems. The Strengthening Families, Restoring Liberty and Justice Rally was held during a beautiful afternoon and was organized by Bruce Levine and Lou Jasikoff, two of many in attendance crusading to cap corruption in the local courtrooms.
Many attendees came out to share their encouragement, also exposing their personal stories, ranging from domestic relations cases gone wrong, to the Kids for Cash and — more recently — Custody for Cash scandals, right down to police intimidation, judicial embezzlement, and out-of-court harassment. Though their tragic stories differed, their voices struck a single message: Justice now!
And their outcry has not fallen on deaf ears.
Wilkes-Barre local and Libertarian candidate for the Pennsylvania House’s 121st District seat, Betsy Summers, shared her empathy and resolve. “To think that this is happening and is ongoing. Just ask the people here. Their stories are heart-wrenching. Even judges have become part of the system,” she said.
Democratic candidate Andy Ostrowski, challenging incumbent Lou Barletta in the Eleventh Congressional District race, also stopped by to show his support for ending the imbalance of power which has taken root within the courts. He commented, “The courts define the boundaries of the Constitution and the power and authority of actors under color of law, and in this modern world they’re being more and more favorable to the police and law enforcement, expanding their powers and limiting the rights of the individuals. That’s the core of the problem and we’ve got people suffering all over.”
Judy Lorah Fisher understands that suffering all too well. Her niece, Amanda, was 13 years old when she was sentenced as the Kids for Cash scandal was running its course. Judy recounted the terror, fear, and hopelessness involved with the traumatic experience. “She was a good student and got good grades. She loved to dance, and she was an athlete.” Amanda played volleyball, and during one practice another student was struck by the ball Amanda had hit over the net. The girl responded by shoving Amanda repeatedly until Amanda finally shoved back.
I’m going to tell you how they did it: they picked all of the low-income students who were on the school’s free student lunch program. They knew they couldn’t afford attorneys before they ever even went into court.
Amanda was sent to the school office, where matters took an unexpected turn. “We expected both of the girls to get suspended, but instead we got a letter in the mail saying [Amanda] had to appear in Juvenile Court. It went right past the magistrate, and straight to the Juvenile Court. Amanda had never even been in trouble before this,” Fisher said. It was during the 2006–2007 school year that Amanda was shackled like a criminal, dragged out of court, and began her four years’ incarceration in a juvenile detention center — all on the basis of assault charges stemming from the volleyball incident.
The abuse Amanda faced behind bars was scarring both physically and psychologically. “Amanda was a bright, outward person, but she was so abused in there. She still has scars around her ankles from the shackles,” Fisher said. While Amanda suffered, Fisher refused to rest until her niece’s story was heard. But as she performed her own research she learned a tragic truth about how deep the rabbit hole of corruption really extended. “Over 3,000 kids were incarcerated during Kids for Cash, and I’m going to tell you how they did it: they picked all of the low-income students who were on the school’s free student lunch program. They knew they couldn’t afford attorneys before they ever even went into court.”
Although Ciavarella is serving a 28-year sentence, the damage was done, and for people like Amanda, who now struggles with anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the relief of that sentence was too little, too late. Fisher’s work thus remains unfinished. “The same environment exists in those courts today as it did then. Nothing has changed. It’s just business as usual.”