Charlie Balasavage has been on my mind since Sunday.
I'd intended to keep this story for my weekly roundup (it doesn't qualify as a "best of the week" - rather, it is one of the saddest stories I've heard.) The front page of Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer had this article about at least two corrupt judges who sentenced kids to hard time in exchange for cash . The article tells the story of 16-year old Charlie Balasavage of Luzerne County, PA who was sentenced three years ago to do time in a secure juvenile detention facility. His crime? He bought a scooter from a relative; unbeknownst to him, the scooter had been stolen.
Yeah. For his $60 purchase of a scooter (we're not talking drugs, we're not talking murder, we're talking a scooter) Charlie gets shackled in front of his mother and sent packing to a juvenile detention center. Did I mention that was three years ago? Charlie is still there! And, what's even worse is that his parents are being asked to foot the bill of $220 per month to keep him in juvenile hall. They're in arrears; they owe $1,200. Meanwhile, we've got cop killers running rampant throughout the streets of Philadelphia and they all seem to be individuals who were once locked up, and then, somehow, released. Again and again and again.
Something is obviously clearly wrong with this situation, and one only needs to look no further than the judge's bench to Mark Ciavarella, the judge in Charlie's case. But, let's put His Honor aside for a moment. (We'll come back to him in a second.) Like Charlie, we all have ne'er do wells in the branches of our family trees who have taken money from us or otherwise done us wrong. But that doesn't mean that we deserve to be sent away for three years, particularly when - as in Charlie's case -one doesn't have a prior record. The right thing should have been for the relative to step up to the plate and explain things to the judge somehow, but that didn't happen in this case - nor does it seem that Judge Mark Ciavarella would have allowed the relative to speak. From The Philadelphia Inquirer:
In what authorities are calling one of the worst judicial scandals in Pennsylvania history, Ciavarella and another Luzerne County judge, Michael T. Conahan, pleaded guilty last month to sentencing youths - Charlie among them - to secure detention facilities from which they received $2.6 million in kickbacks. After their guilty pleas, the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia filed a civil lawsuit on behalf of 70 families, including the Balasavages, alleging that Ciavarella and Conahan violated the rights of young offenders in ways that went beyond the kickback scheme. In "a wave of unprecedented lawlessness," the suit says, the judges failed to advise Charlie and other youths of their right to counsel, accepted their guilty pleas without explaining what they had been charged with, and garnisheed the wages of their parents to pay the costs of detention.
No, Judge Ciavarella doesn't seem to go for such frivolities like testimony in his courtroom. According to the Inquirer story, he dispensed quickly with the legalities that the situation required (he probably needed to catch a flight to check on his Florida condominum - and no doubt, meet Bernie Madoff for dinner). And he wasn't done. Judge Ciavarella continued to sentence Charlie over and over and over again. At last count, Charlie had been sentenced to time in seven separate detention centers.
When I read this story, I expected there to be much hue and cry over this. But a Google search of Charlie Balasavage's name comes up with the Inquirer article cited here and a blog posting from Main Street Liberal. That's it. If there's an opinion piece or something else out there, I haven't found it. So, I'm sorry Charlie, I guess you're stuck with me.
Here's what needs to happen in this case, in case anyone is listening. Charlie needs to be released. Today. Now. His record needs to be cleared, completely. His parents need to be paid back every freakin' dime - interest would also be nice - that they have paid to the state or whomever for their 16 year old son's incarceration. Whatever school Charlie wishes to enroll in needs to accept his credits from the educational program that he participated in while he was in the juvenile center. And Judge Ciavarella needs to enjoy the comforts of prison life for a good long time.
Oh, and one more thing. Charlie needs to lose a few pounds, get contacts, and transform himself into Brad Pitt. Because that's one of the saddest reasons, I believe, that this case isn't getting any attention. You know as well as I do that if Charlie was blond and blue eyed and on the football team that he would be a free boy right now. But he's not, and I firmly believe that his looks are one of the reasons why people are turning a blind eye to his fate.
It's not too late - yet. You see the glimmer of hope, of salvation in Charlie's words in the article. "I can't waste time being angry," he says. "I've lost too much already."
All this for what? A scooter and $60. It's not like Charlie shot and killed someone. But Judge Ciavarella might as well have done exactly that. For by accepting the kickbacks from the detention centers and showing such blatant, callous disregard for a young boy's life, Judge Ciavarella committed attempted murder on Charlie Balasavage's soul.