Conahan/Ciacarella
© Mark Moran/AP
Former Luzerne County Court Judges Michael Conahan and Mark Ciavarella
Two former Pennsylvania judges who orchestrated a scheme to send children to for-profit jails in exchange for kickbacks were ordered to pay more than $200 million to hundreds of people they victimized in one of the worst judicial scandals in U.S. history.

U.S. District Judge Christopher Conner awarded $106 million in compensatory damages and $100 million in punitive damages to nearly 300 people in a long-running civil suit against the judges, writing the plaintiffs are "the tragic human casualties of a scandal of epic proportions."

In what came to be known as the kids-for-cash scandal, Mark Ciavarella and another judge, Michael Conahan, shut down a county-run juvenile detention center and accepted $2.8 million in illegal payments from the builder and co-owner of two for-profit lockups. Ciavarella, who presided over juvenile court, pushed a zero-tolerance policy that guaranteed large numbers of kids would be sent to PA Child Care and its sister facility, Western PA Child Care.

Ciavarella ordered children as young as 8 to detention, many of them first-time offenders deemed delinquent for petty theft, jaywalking, truancy, smoking on school grounds and other minor infractions. The judge often ordered youths he had found delinquent to be immediately shackled, handcuffed and taken away without giving them a chance to put up a defense or even say goodbye to their families.

Conner wrote Tuesday in his explanation of the judgment:
"Ciavarella and Conahan abandoned their oath and breached the public trust. Their cruel and despicable actions victimized a vulnerable population of young people, many of whom were suffering from emotional issues and mental health concerns."
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw out some 4,000 juvenile convictions involving more than 2,300 kids after the scheme was uncovered.

It's unlikely the now-adult victims will see even a fraction of the eye-popping damages award, but a lawyer for the plaintiffs said it's a recognition of the enormity of the disgraced judges' crimes.