'Kids for Cash' book offers call for reform
A new book examining the "Kids for Cash" scandal in the Luzerne County courthouse places that event in its full historical context for Northeast Pennsylvania as well as offering a call for reform of the juvenile justice system.
Authored by veteran journalist William Ecenbarger, this book published by The New Press explores the long-standing tolerance for public corruption in the anthracite region shaped by the relentless extraction of its mineral resources. Ecenbarger documents the rise of now incarcerated former county judges Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. and Michael T. Conahan to positions of power, where they held the fate of thousands of juvenile defendants in their hands.
He skillfully relates the nightmare experiences of teenagers caught up in a miscarriage of justice while Ciavarella took nearly $1 million from the developer of the for-profit juvenile detention center that he routinely dispatched defendants to in disregard of best practices in juvenile justice.
In a way, Kids for Cash picks up the story where a book published several years ago on the 1959 Knox Mine Disaster left off. This account, written by Robert P. Wolensky, Kenneth C. Wolensky and Nicole H. Wolensky, tells of the corruption behind the mine collapse that occurred 50 years before the Kids for Cash scandal broke wide open in 2009.
Ecenbarger is familiar with exposing the underside of public institutions to the public glare. He was a statehouse journalist in Harrisburg for most of the 1960s and 1970s and part of a Philadelphia Inquirer reporting team that published a ground-breaking 1978 series on excesses in the General Assembly.
A new study by the state Independent Fiscal Office examines Pennsylvania's tax system in comparison to other states as a special House task force looks for ways to eliminate the school property tax and debate continues over whether state liquor taxes are too high and whether gas taxes generate enough revenue.
During fiscal years 2010 and 2011, Pennsylvania ranked 16th among the 50 states based on the ratio of income tax to personal income for the state personal income tax. The PIT rate is 3.07 percent. Pennsylvania levies a relatively low PIT rate and gives senior citizens a big break by excluding pension and Social Security income from the PIT, but a number of states have lower rates, according to the IFO study.
Pennsylvania ranks eighth in corporate income taxes. The state's corporate income tax rate, at 9.99 percent, is the second highest among the states, yet there are factors that reduce the state's overall corporate tax burden. Some states levy high corporate license fees. A scheduled completion to the phase-out of the state capital tax and franchise tax in 2014 will improve Pennsylvania's standing in relation to other states, the IFO said.
Pennsylvania ranks 39th among the states with a sales tax rate at 6 percent. Pennsylvania exempts clothing and many basic food items from that tax.
Pennsylvania ranks 31st for property taxes, which are levied by schools, counties and municipalities. The commonwealth ranks 28th for motor vehicle taxes.
Pennsylvania ranks fifth in so-called sin taxes on gambling, liquor and cigarettes. Pennsylvania levies the highest tax rate on slot revenues at 34 percent and table games at 14 percent among states with casino gambling.
(Robert Swift is Harrisburg bureau chief for Times-Shamrock Communications newspapers. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.)