A CALL FOR JUSTICE, WITH UNDERSTANDING

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Judging Children as Children: A Proposal for a Juvenile Justice System; By Michael A. Corriero; Temple University Press; $25

On a recent Friday morning, New York City Supreme Court Judge Michael Corriero addressed visitors in a courtroom adjacent to the windowless, cramped room on the seventh floor of 111 Centre St. where Part 73, better known as the Youth Part, is housed. Before getting to the business of deciding whether 13 to 15 year-olds will be sentenced to prison or placed in rehabilitative programs and monitored in probation, he’s quoting Pink Floyd to a collection of politicians and others interested in the world of juvenile justice.

The unforgiving stare Corriero wears in the courtroom is nowhere to be seen. As he speaks to the small audience, he looks like a lovable teacher who is straining to make his pupils understand a lesson close to his heart. In a flat cadence, the 63 year-old jurist recites lyrics to one of rock’s most rebellious songs.

“We don’t need no education,” he says evenly, speaking instead of singing. “We don’t need no thought control. No dark sarcasm in the classroom. Hey teacher leave those kids alone. All in all we’re just another brick in the what,” he asks quietly of the assembled pols and experts. “Another brick in the…” he asks again, looking around. The assembled audience squirms.

After a pause he shouts: “The Wall! The Wall! And what is the Wall that Pink Floyd is talking about? I think it’s the wall of communication between adults and children. It’s the wall that lets us forget what it’s like to be children. The older you get the more important it is to remember what you were like when you were 14.”

Nothing is more important than this central point: Adults are different than children. It is this point – what Corriero calls the “oxymoron” of trying children in adult courts – that he drives home in a his new book, “Judging Children as Children: A Proposal for a Juvenile Justice System.” It fuses history of juvenile justice with his own analysis through the prism of the Youth Part, using his experience to call for reform of a system that does not account for the myriad differences between adults and children.

“That is not to say that a 14 year-old cannot know or appreciate right from wrong,” Corriero writes. “But how can we hold adolescents accountable as adults in adult courts for not exercising a level of maturity that they are not physically, emotionally or intellectually expected to possess?”

What the book lacks in poetic or punchy prose it makes up for in clarity. Corriero criticizes what he sees as the dangers and shortcomings, both moral and practical, inherent in the historical trend toward an all stick, no carrot “get tough” approach to juvenile justice.

He speaks from long experience as a former assistant district attorney, criminal defense lawyer, judge since 1980 and Youth Part judge since 1992. He helped create the judicial apparatus that stands at the crossroads between “juvenile offender” and “youthful offender,” between prison and programs. It was a response to New York State’s 1978 Juvenile Offender Law saying any 13 to 15 year-old charged with murder or a serious violent crime is subject to a mandatory prison term and a felony record. Judges had the discretion to grant Youthful Offender status, and provide for the possibility of probation. Corriero’s Youth Part funneled all of these offenders before one court equipped to handle the nuances of dealing with children.

Corriero thinks there are some children who commit crimes so violent and depraved that they need to be placed in prison and segregated from society. But he thinks many of the children he sees every year deserve an alternative to prison. Just outside his courtroom, jammed onto a bench along the hallway, are some of those teens that Corriero has granted a second chance. It hasn’t escaped his notice that aside from one Chinese youth, all the adolescents are black and Latino.

In a holding cell behind his courtroom, with their wrists shackled in handcuffs behind their backs, are those whose fates he still holds in his hands. Corriero can decide whether they will be sentenced to prison or placed in an “alternative to incarceration” program, where he and his staff monitor their progress. If they fail to meet his expectations, Corriero throws them in prison. During his session later that morning he makes the threat repeatedly of the children who amble before him.

All Corriero’s conclusions in his book begin with this observation – children are different than the rest of us. Therefore they need to be treated differently when it comes to meting out justice. Anything else, Corriero argues, is unjust.

“Cicero said that true law, that is a just law, is right reason in agreement with nature,” he writes. “Trying children in systems created for adults applying principles designed for adults is not right reason in agreement with nature [and] are largely ineffective … A juvenile justice process can play an important role in meeting the challenge of socializing our children by viewing their transgressions as an opportunity to educate and socialize.”

Using his Youth Part as a starting point, Corriero describes a juvenile justice system that stresses reformation over revenge and strives to separate violent repeat offenders from an adolescent who made a mistake. He calls for a structure that allows for flexibility in sentencing, so that children who can change have the resources available to them in the form of well-funded alternatives to incarceration, and one that allows children who made a stupid mistake not to be defined by it. Such a system also allows children who are charged with a felony to have their records sealed, so they aren’t deprived of future job opportunities and siphoned back into a world of crime, if they prove themselves worthy of returning to society.

But he knows there’s a lot of work that no juvenile judge can do. He recognizes that most of these children – born into poverty and raised in drug-riddled, heavily armed neighborhoods – are well along the cradle-to-prison pipeline by the time he encounters them. He makes this point in the opening chapter of his book with an anecdote from early in his career when he was sentencing a petty thief with more than 40 convictions.

“I asked him: ‘Is there no hope for you, no chance to rehabilitate you?’ I took his response as sad, yet sage advice – ‘Judge, how can you rehabilitate me when I never have been habilitated?’” [10/09/06]