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Judging Children as Children

Judging Children as Children
A Proposal for a Juvenile Justice System

Judge Michael A. Corriero

A Q&A with the Manhattan Youth Part Judge about his innovative proposal for a juvenile justice system

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 Juvenile Justice?
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 each case?
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 neighborhoods.

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.


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