Q: What thought
or thoughts about Juvenile Justice motivated you to write this book?
A: The idea: "Would you want to be forever
defined by what you did at 14?"
Q: How did you get involved in the issue of
A: As a teenager growing up in Manhattan's Little
Italy in the 1950s, I saw how easily a careless choice could draw
one into a situation that carried "the appearance of a culpability
not necessarily justified by the true facts." When the legendary
District Attorney Frank Hogan gave me an opportunity to work in
his office, his policy towards young offenders was especially significant
to me. He believed that courts and prosecutors had a special obligation
to make sure that young people were treated fairly and effectively,
recognizing that young offenders were malleable and could be positively
influenced. As a judge I was able to weave that sensitivity into
my work, but I soon realized the limitations of laws that inhibited
a constructive response to juvenile offending. This book has grown
out of those experiences.
Q: Why did you write this book?
A: I wrote this book in an effort to make a difference
in the way children are treated in our courts. I believe the book
illustrates the corrosive impact of our current national policy
of trying children as adults. It is written from the perspective
of a judge—who for 25 years has served in New York City's
criminal courts—grappling with the issues presented by troubled
children and children in trouble with the law. My goal was to describe
a humane and constructive policy of juvenile justice that would
form the basis for a model of justice for minors—a model based
on the true nature of adolescence and the realities faced by youth
in modern society.
Q: How would you improve the system?
A: I do not ignore the impact of juvenile crime
on its victims. On the contrary, Judging Children as Children
offers a proposal in the form of a model of juvenile justice that
is likely to prevent further criminal behavior and give young offenders
an opportunity to lead fulfilling lives.
Q: What is wrong with our current national
policy of trying children as adults?
A: Trying children as adults instead of as children
is not just. The policies underlying these laws ignore common sense,
ancient conceptions of childhood, as well as what "science
knows about adolescents and their diminished abilities to act responsibly
and rationally and their greater capacity to be rehabilitated."
Thus, these laws are at odds with human nature and sound social
and economic policy.
Q: You mention in the book that "when
we try children in adult courts, we do so as a result of flawed
reasoning, penalizing them for not exercising that degree of judgment
that we would expect of adults." Why do you think children
should be held up to a different standard of responsibility?
A: Common sense tells us that children are developmentally
different from adults. Anyone who has had the responsibility of
raising teenagers or remembers what is was like to be an adolescent
recognizes, for example, the powerful pull of peer pressure, yet
we essentially penalize adolescents for not resisting negative peer
pressure through the application of standards of culpability that
we would expect to apply to adults. That is not to say that a 14-year-old
cannot know or appreciate right from wrong, 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? However, laws that require such
an approach are presently the most commonly proposed method for
addressing juvenile crime in America.
Q: You must have seen some pretty troubled
children in your courtroom. How do you keep a fair outlook with
A: I approach each child and his or her case with
the recognition that they pose a challenge that I try to meet, if
possible, with the tools and programs available to me. Children
are generally more malleable than adults and therefore less wedded
to their misbehavior and more susceptible to positive influence.
Of course, not every child can be spared imprisonment. Some must,
for the immediate safety of society, be incarcerated, but each child
deserves an individualized assessment of their culpability and capacity
to conform their behavior to society's standards
Q: How do you arrive at a specific sentence?
A: Factors that must be considered in deciding
on a sentence for juvenile offenders include respect for the suffering
of the victim and the victim's family, maintenance of public confidence
in the rule of law, and recognition of the State's responsibility
to protect children and insure their development. Determining an
appropriate sentence requires reflection on the facts of the case,
the individualized circumstances of an offender, and the recommendations
of prosecution and defense counsel. For example, with respect to
an individual youth, I consider the extent of the youth's involvement
in the underlying crime, whether he or she engaged in personal violence
to achieve their purpose, the capacity of the youth to benefit from
counseling offered by alternative-to-incarceration programs, the
youth's prior delinquency record, if any, and his or her school
performance. I also make an effort to speak to each child personally.
With such reflection, the outlines of a sentence usually crystallize
from my accumulated experience in dealing with cases of this nature.
Q: In Chapter 5 you list characteristics of
children who are involved in crime. For example: single parent families,
neglect/abuse, addiction, educational problems, etc. Do you think
that there are ways to solve these problems first, and thereby reduce
the number of offenders? Can you foresee any chance of reducing
the number of children at risk?
A: I began Chapter 1 of the book with the story
of Loretta—a 14-year-old girl who was charged as an accomplice
in a robbery and prosecuted as an adult—to illustrate the
dimension of the problems young offenders present. The challenge
posed by children like Loretta requires a rejuvenation of spirit,
a concrete display of opportunity, and an absolute right to the
best education available, so that these [disadvantaged] children
will be prepared to embrace opportunity when it is presented. We
try to meet this challenge in the Youth Part, but we cannot directly
confront the underlying issues and the social conditions that lead
to juvenile crime. These issues must be addressed through a comprehensive
youth policy that recognizes that children born into neighborhoods
where public services and educational institutions are weakest need
our attention and support. Most juvenile offenders come from our
poorest neighborhoods. At many public schools, more than half of
our disadvantaged students drop out before they reach 12th grade.
One way of reducing the number of children at risk is to increase
our commitment to improving the educational institutions in these
Q: What strategies do you employ to encourage
the children you see to take control and better their lives?
A: In the Youth Part, we rely on the device of
a "deferred sentence" to give certain youths a chance
to earn probation and have their records sealed by successfully
completing an alternative-to-incarceration program. It suffices
to say that we have structured the Youth Part process as a system
of reward and punishment in the sense of providing encouragement
and support when appropriate, as well as timely instilling discipline
and exacting a cost for misbehavior when necessary.