Two former judges in the US have been charged over a scheme to send children to private prisons for kickbacks. 

US District Judge Christopher Conner has awarded US$106 million in compensatory damages and US$100 million in punitive damages to nearly 300 people in a long-running civil suit against the former judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan. 

In what has been known as the ‘kids-for-cash’ scandal, the former judges were found to have shut down a county-run juvenile detention centre and accepted US$2.8 million in illegal payments from the builder and co-owner of two for-profit prisons.

Mr Ciavarella once presided over juvenile court and pushed a zero-tolerance policy that guaranteed large numbers of children would be sent to PA Child Care and its sister facility, Western PA Child Care.

He ordered children as young as eight to detention. Many were first-time offenders deemed delinquent for petty theft, jaywalking, truancy, smoking on school grounds and other minor infractions.

The kids he found delinquent were often immediately shackled, handcuffed and taken away without a chance to put up a defence or say goodbye to their families.

“Ciavarella and Conahan abandoned their oath and breached the public trust,” Judge Conner wrote. 

“Their cruel and despicable actions victimised a vulnerable population of young people, many of whom were suffering from emotional issues and mental health concerns.

“They recounted his harsh and arbitrary nature, his disdain for due process, his extraordinary abruptness, and his cavalier and boorish behaviour in the courtroom.”

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw out around 4,000 juvenile convictions involving over 2,300 children after the scheme was uncovered.

Analysts say the now-adult victims are unlikely to see even a fraction of the eye-popping damages awarded, as the two former judges do not appear to have anywhere near the funds to fulfil the court’s order. 

Mr Ciavarella, 72, is serving a 28-year prison sentence in Kentucky with a projected release date of 2035. Mr Conahan, 70, received a sentence of over 17 years in prison but was released to home confinement with six years left in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Judge Connor calculated damages on the basis that each plaintiff was entitled to a base rate of US$1,000 for each day of wrongful detention, adjusted for the circumstances of each case.

He wrote that the substantial punitive damages were warranted because the disgraced judges inflicted “unspeakable physical and emotional trauma”.

Victims testified that their unjust sentences left them severely traumatised, with one saying the judge had “ruined my life” and “didn't let me get to my future”.

“I feel I was just sold out for no reason. Like everybody just stood in line to be sold,” a plaintiff said. 

The judge noted that many of the childhood victims who were part of the lawsuit when it began in 2009 have since died from overdoses or suicide.

The damages award covers plaintiffs who chose to participate in the case. Several of the major figures in the case have settled in recent years, including the builder and the owner of the private lock-ups and their companies, in payouts totalling about US$25 million.