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Who Gets a Second Chance?
This judge wants kinder courts
YCteen staff
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Before the late 1970s, New York state had some of the most lenient juvenile justice laws in the country. If you were 15 years old or younger your case would be heard in a special court and you couldn’t be locked up for more than five years, even if you’d murdered someone.

But in 1978, a 15-year-old named Willie Bosket murdered two people on the subway. He had already built up a long rap sheet and when people realized he would be free in five years, a public outcry followed.

State politicians were eager to change the law to show they were tough on crime. One option would have been to introduce what some other states had at the time: a “transfer up” system allowing judges to move dangerous juvenile criminals into regular adult courts on a case-by-case basis. A teen transferred to an adult court would face tougher punishment.

New York went further than that. Suddenly, children as young as 13 and 14 who were accused of certain serious crimes were required to be tried in adult courts. They faced mandatory imprisonment and a permanent felony record.

Judge Michael Corriero, who was on the bench in from 1988 to 2008, heard many of these cases—for a while, he was the only judge hearing the cases of 13- and 14-year-olds being tried as adults in the city. It was up to him to decide whether a kid should be locked up or get “youthful offender status,” which allowed the kid to receive probation and be sent to an alternative-to-incarceration program (see sidebar). “I had the responsibility of deciding who went to jail and got a felony record for the rest of their lives, and who got a second chance,” he said.

NYC talked to Judge Corriero recently about how he made those decisions. We found he believes courts should “protect and nurture” children and teens who are able and ready to change for the better, as he wrote in his 2006 book, Judging Children as Children.

Here, in his words, is some of what he told us about juvenile crime, peer pressure, and hope:

From the Bench

“There was a 14-year-old African-American girl, we’ll call her “Loretta,” who was riding the subway with her friend. The friend is a little bigger and tougher than Loretta. They’re sitting across from a young lady who has beautiful, shimmering earrings. The friend, who’s a bully, says, “Look at those earrings. I want them.”

The bully gets up and Loretta gets up with her, and they hover over this girl. The bully says, “Give me your earrings.” The girl tries to walk away, but is blocked by Loretta. Again the bully demands the earrings; no response. The bully rips the earrings out of the girl’s ears. Train doors open, and there happens to be a police officer standing there who charges the bully and Loretta with robbery in the second degree.

Loretta got up with the bully, knowing that the bully wanted the earrings. Therefore, she faced the same punishment as the bully: imprisonment of a minimum of one to three years and a felony record, unless I granted them youthful offender status. Both came before me, and I found that Loretta had never been in trouble before.

image by Daniela Castillo

Nothing to Grasp Onto

I told one of the alternative-to-incarceration program representatives who used to come to my court, “Interview Loretta. Tell me what you think of her.” The representative asked her a typical social worker question, to get a sense of who she was: “If you could change three things in your life, what would you change?”

Loretta said that she would change her country, because she believed America was a racist society; her family, because her mother was a crack addict and she never knew her father; and her sex, because she felt that young women were vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse.

How do we make Loretta believe she has the power to change the circumstances of her life? If you have no hope, if you feel that the world is an obstacle for you to realize your dreams, then you have nothing to grasp onto when you’re standing there surrounded by your best friends who love you, who take care of you and protect you, but who nevertheless want to do something very bad. How are you going to find the strength to walk away?

What I tried to do, with Loretta and other young people I thought I could work with, was to place them in alternative-to-incarceration programs where they could learn to better appreciate their self-worth and the opportunities that existed for them.

Barack Obama’s second book was The Audacity of Hope. “Audacity” is an interesting word. It’s like you’ve really got to overcome something to hope. That’s what Loretta needed to be able to say to the bully, “I can’t do that; it’s not me; it might jeopardize my career or going to school.” That audacity to hope.

A Fair Chance

Of all the kids that came before me, I put about 65% in alternative-to-incarceration programs. Of those, about 17% got re-arrested during the course of that year. It was 17% too many, but of the kids that I had to send off to lockup—the kids I couldn’t give a second chance to, either because they were very violent or they’d had numerous chances before—60% to 80% were re-arrested within six months of their release from the institution. So the system is failing young people in lockup.

It’s going to be up to your generation to bring about all the things I want to see happen: going back to a “transfer up” system; making sure that all the kids we have to send away are educated and given the kind of mental health services they need; making it so that, even if I have to give you a felony conviction, if you stay out of trouble for 10 years, you should have a way of coming back to court so that we can seal your record. Because if you have a felony record, your life is so curtailed.

How would you like to be defined forever by what you did at 13? To me that’s not moral; it’s not fair.”

Editor’s Note: Judge Corriero’s comments have been condensed and edited for clarity.

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(NYC-2010-05-20a)