Two corrupt judges have admitted getting paid for sending young offenders to private jails, often against the advice of probation officers and other court officials.
Bent judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan, both of Pennsylvania, admitted receiving $2.6m in kickbacks as part of a plea-bargaining agreement that will see each jailed for a minimum of seven years. The deal sparked protests from friends and relatives of youngsters affected by the case, some of who have already launched lawsuits.
The judges took part in agreements "guaranteeing placement of juvenile offenders with PA Child Care, LLC and facilitating the construction of juvenile detention facilities," according to court papers, AFP reports.
Pennsylvania Child Care and Western Pennsylvania Child Care are implicated in the scandal.
More than 5,000 adolescents from 13 to 18 were found guilty between 2002 and 2007 during the period when the judges were active in Luzerne county, Pennsylvania. More than 2,000 were sentenced to detention. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ordered a judge from outside the area to review the cases.
Ciavarella jailed one in four juvenile defendants between his court between 2002 to 2006, compared to an average rate across the state of 10 per cent, AP reports.
Marie Roda, a spokeswoman for the Juvenile Law Center, which represents youngsters in trouble with the law and helped uncover the abuse, said many of the jailed youngsters came from poor families who had little access to legal help a factor that made them "easy targets" for abuse.
The Juvenile Law Center and in some cases the families themselves have launched lawsuits. The lead complainant in one lawsuit is the mum of Berandine Wallace, 14, who was convicted of "terroristic threats" after getting into a slanging match on MySpace, AP reports.
Hillary Transue, now 17, was imprisoned for three months in 2007 after she admitted the creation of a spoof MySpace page mocking her school assistant principal, the New York Times adds.
Youngsters with clean records were jailed for months on misdemeanor charges. Those in violation of probation orders were also imprisoned, often against the advice of their probation officers. ®