PLYMOUTH, Pa. (AP) — Hillary Transue has seen his face “about 3,000 times,” the face of the crooked judge who sent her to a youth camp at age 15 over a MySpace parody.
Disgraced Pennsylvania judge Mark Ciavarella is now serving a 28-year prison term for taking secret finder’s fees from juvenile center officials. Yet Transue felt like she was looking right at him at a Luzerne County cafe last month. She had gone there to meet his daughter, lawyer Lauren Ciavarella Stahl.
“We’ve been talking on Facebook for weeks. I like her. But there’s something about her face that is infuriating me,” Transue recalled. “She has his face.”
Transue, now 22, had initiated the meeting after each appeared in “Kids for Cash,” a recently released documentary that examines the zero-tolerance policies that funneled 3,000 children in Luzerne County alone into the juvenile court system. She and Stahl are now working together to come up with ways to help troubled youth.
Transue was sent away in 2007 for creating a MySpace page about her vice principal. She was released three weeks later after the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center intervened and ultimately helped get thousands of Ciavarella’s juvenile convictions expunged because the children didn’t have lawyers representing them.
“It was black and white for him. And, obviously, things are not black and white,” said Stahl, 32, a former prosecutor who hopes to lend her name to juvenile advocacy programs, especially those that help children stay in their homes. “The idea of putting someone like Hillary in front of a judge in the first place is mind-blowing to me.”
Federal prosecutors said Ciavarella and fellow judge Michael Conahan took more than $2 million in bribes from the builder and co-owner of the PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care detention centers. Although the scandal was quickly dubbed “Kids for Cash,” Ciavarella insisted throughout his 2011 trial that he never took the money in exchange for filling beds with juvenile defendants.
Stahl and Transue disagree on some finer points of the case but agree that zero-tolerance rules are harmful to children. They haven’t yet figured out what form their potential advocacy might take.
“We’re coming from two completely opposite ends of the spectrum,” Transue said. “(Yet) we’re meeting in the middle. I think that really has the power to move people.”
Transue fared better than many of Ciavarella’s charges. She finished high school and went to college in New Hampshire before returning home to pursue a graduate degree in creative writing at Wilkes University.
“Everything in my adult life blooms from the moment he boomed, ‘Adjudicated delinquent!’ and had me ushered out of the courtroom so that I could be cuffed to the sound of my mother’s desperate wailing,” Transue wrote in a recent article for the women-focused website Vitamin W, calling Ciavarella “a Napoleonic megalomaniac in judge’s robes.”
Stahl understands her animus. Her father had a zero-tolerance policy at home, too, even the night she missed curfew by 15 minutes because an accident blocked her only route home.
She believes other people were complicit in the push to detain young offenders, including educators, prosecutors and even some parents.
“Everyone just seemed way too complacent with the status quo,” said Stahl, who visits her father at a federal prison in Illinois once or twice a year.
She said she believes he has seen “the error of his ways” when it comes to zero tolerance and the illegal payments.
The documentary reopened wounds for some of the juvenile victims trying to rebuild their lives. Some spent years in and out of custody, disrupting their education and home life, and have not yet landed on their feet.
“I wish I could somehow have them realize that yes, this will shape you, but, my God, don’t let this man define you,” Stahl said.
Transue, for one, has nearly come full circle.
“He’s just a stupid man with a big ego and a very misguided sense of justice,” Transue concluded in her essay. “(But) neither of us can go back and undo what happened, and I’m sure he regrets that ... more than I do.”