One Man’s Fight for Juvenile Justice

NEW YORK – “How many of you want to be judged for your entire lives based on what you did at age fourteen?” Michael Corriero, a trim looking man in his sixties, asked an audience of students from Coventry University, England in a conference room in the West Village neighborhood of Manhattan.

There was no answer.

Corriero is used to the silence that follows this question, as it usually comes on platforms where he speaks on juvenile justice. Corriero is a former judge of the Manhattan Supreme Court, where he served for 28 years in the criminal courts. He is widely known in legal circles as a leading advocate for juvenile justice reform in the United States, one that emphasizes less punitive sentences for juvenile offenders. He established the Manhattan Youth Part – a special court that deals exclusively with children less than 16 years charged with the most serious and violent crimes. His goal is to replace a law passed in 1978 that put such minors under the jurisdiction of adult courts.

Corriero currently works as a juvenile justice consultant for governments and organizations across Asia, Africa and South America. He uses research findings to manage the juvenile justice statutes in some countries. When he is not traveling abroad, students and legal workers visit him to learn about New York’s State laws.

For the students of Coventry University, Corriero gave a lecture on the history of New York’s juvenile legal system and its relation to similar laws in other states. The former judge alternated his cadence in ways similar to a fervent preacher or salesman, highlighting key moments in recent history that have brought about changes in the quality of juvenile justice.

He looked searchingly in the faces of the students seated around him every now and then. They all appeared engaged.

He told them the story of Willie Bosket, a boy who in 1978 murdered two people on the subway before he reached the age of 16. This led to a change in New York State’s juvenile justice laws, one that was adopted by other states.

Prior to Bosket’s incident, the cases of children under 16 years of age – regardless of the severity of the offence with which they were charged – were prosecuted exclusively in Family Court. However, with Bosket’s case and the rise of juvenile arrests in the mid-seventies, the Family Court system got revised. It replaced a model of juvenile justice, which had been in place since the 19th century.

“In New York, 1978 coincided with a gubernatorial election. Up until Willie Bosket, the governor was considered quite liberal, quite progressive and sensitive to the issues young city kids were facing. But he was running against a very conservative and very tough opponent, and neither wanted to appear as being soft on crime,” Corriero recounted. “As a result, the legislature – controlled by the Democrats – feared that their candidate would lose; and so they revisited the way young offenders under the age of 16 were treated by the law. This changed the legal architecture of juvenile laws.”

Corriero often uses this story to explain how politics and policy have altered the juvenile justice system. Although he says there was a need to change existing laws to deal with special cases such as Willie Boskett’s, legislators used a broad stroke, which ignored the special circumstances within which most young people commit crimes. It is what underlies his activism: children must be judged as children, based on their circumstances and criminal history. They must not pay the same price as adults.

“Judging children as children means we should recognize their developmental differences and nature of adolescence,” he says. “We should have responses that address their special needs. We should leave room to reform and not indelibly define them because they are malleable.”

Rooted in this idea is the personal story of Corriero, one that stretches beyond his 28 years on the bench. It underlies his position as a juvenile justice activist, but also dates to his years as a teenager in Manhattan’s Mulberry Bend over fifty years ago.

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In his book – “How the other Half lives” – published in 1890, journalist and social documentary photographer, Jacob Riis, documents living conditions in New York City’s slums. In one chapter, he writes about Italian immigrants in New York:

“The Italian comes in at the bottom, and in the generation that came over the sea he stays there. In the slums he is welcomed as a tenant who “makes less trouble” than the contentious Irishman or the order-loving German, that is to say: is content to live in a pigsty and submits to robbery at the hands of the rent-collector without murmur”.

Though Riis’ account dates back more than a century, it is within the same crime-ridden and squalid living conditions of New York City’s slums that Corriero recalls spending his early years in the 50s and 60s. The only child to a sailor and a seamstress (both Italian immigrants), Corriero spent his youthful days in the tenements of Mulberry (Bend) Street, known as Little Italy.

building

March 1912. “Row of tenements, 260 to 268 Elizabeth St., New York, in which a great deal of finishing of clothes is carried on.” 268 Elizabeth Street, in Little Italy, is now a “luxe sweater bar” called Sample; 258 (Kips Bay) is a handbag boutique called Token. Photo by Lewis Wickes Hine.

“I look back to my own adolescence and how easily a careless decision could affect the rest of your life,” he recently said, as he sat in his private office on Christopher Street for an interview. “I wasn’t a good boy, but as I grew older, I realized how the pursuit of education and the appropriate role models steered me towards a good path.”

To back up his words, the 69-year old pointed to a black and white photo, framed and hung close to his desk. “You know a picture is worth more than a thousand words,” he said, as he fixed his gaze on his 15-year old image. It was of a longhaired young boy, with a cigarette dangling from his mouth as he posed between two friends for the photo.

From his years as a young boy in the tenements, Corriero rose above his circumstances to gain a scholarship into St. John’s Law School, after which he worked briefly in private legal practice. He later worked in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, before starting out as a judge in 1980. During those years, he got actively involved in advocating for juvenile justice reforms; delivering lectures and writing papers to support his view.

“Within one generation, I moved from such an environment to become a judge,” he said, adding, “Who wants to be judged for the rest of your life based on what you did as a teenager?”

To Corriero, dealing with juvenile offenders is not a question of withholding punishment for crimes, but finding better solutions that reform these juvenile offenders.

When he established the Manhattan Youth Part in 1992, he started working with parents of the offenders and prosecutors to find alternatives to incarceration for these minors. Then, the Manhattan Judicial Council agreed to his model only as an experiment.

Donna Henken, a senior attorney who spent years working in Corriero’s court, explained his approach as a way of looking past the offense to the life of the offender. “It is different from the cut-and-dried way in which other judges treat these kids. He was interested in their life stories, listening to them to find solutions to their problems.”

When he retired in 2008, Corriero handed the youth part to his successor, Eduardo Padro. The Youth Part still follows the model of its founding judge.

A recent anthropological study shows that the court has registered some of the lowest recidivism rates among youthful offenders in New York State since its inception. Though no concrete data exists for total numbers spanning the period of the court’s existence, the author of the study, Carla Barrett – a Professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice – spent five years observing and gathering data on the processes and procedure at the court.

Now retired from active legal service, Corriero currently works with governments and organizations across Asia, Africa and South America, by using research findings to manage the juvenile justice statutes in some countries. He has also set up an organization in New York where he continues to advocate for juvenile justice reforms.

Corriero does not only rely on his story of self-will and redemption as the only trope for his activism. He draws on many studies in the social sciences, particularly psychology and brain development, to make a case for the need to treat kids differently from adults in the Juvenile Justice system.

In “Judging Children as Children: A Proposal for a Juvenile Justice System,” a book he published in 2006, Corriero writes: “The argument for trying children as adults has formidable political appeal – but it does not have a sound basis in human nature or psychology.” Citing research studies on brain science and developmental psychology, he points to the fact that teenagers lack competency as trial defendants.

“When teenagers commit criminal acts, gauging the level of their maturity is crucial in determining their culpability. I am proposing a system and method that will permit treatment of young offenders based on individualized judicial assessment of their level of maturity and amenability to social service-oriented dispositions – a juvenile justice policy that treats adolescence as a distinct legal category.”

In the early years of the youth part, many other states were enacting tough laws to deal with Juvenile Offenders in the way New York had been doing since 1978. It was partly due to the heightened publicity given to violent youth crimes taking place in inner cities at the time. Fueling this was the concept of the “Superpredator,” a theory around the notion that a new generation of hardened young criminals was about to rise in America.  The term was popularized in 1996, by criminologist John Dilulio who, together with co-authors William Bennett and John Walters wrote the book “Body Count.”

They wrote: “Based on all that we have witnessed, researched and heard from people who are close to the action, here is what we believe: America is now home to thickening ranks of juvenile ‘Superpredators’ — radically impulsive, brutally remorseless youngsters, including ever more preteenager boys, who murder, assault, rape, rob, burglarize, deal deadly drugs, join gun-toting gangs and create serious communal disorders.”

The theory was based on demographic projections of a growing juvenile population over the next 20 years and a sharp increase in juvenile arrest rates for violent crimes beginning in the mid-1980. These predictions never came to pass.

In 2001, John J. DiIulio Jr. conceded in the New York Times that he wished he had never become the 1990’s intellectual pillar for putting violent juveniles in prison and condemning them as ”superpredators.” In spite of these concessions, the harsh laws remain in force. Juvenile offenders in many states face the same penalties as adults.

Much of Corriero’s focus has been on convincing stakeholders in the justice system to reconsider these harsh laws.

“Nobody wanted this in the first place,” he said, referring to the opposition to his idea of a special court for juvenile offenders. “The prosecutors didn’t want it. The defense lawyers didn’t want it. Even the administrators weren’t enthusiastic about it. So we had to overcome all this disruption to the status quo.” Although this opposition has diminished since the establishment of the Youth Part, Manhattan remains the only borough in New York with such a special court.

Although states such as Illinois have taken steps in overturning some of these reforms, many other states still treat juveniles as adults. In New York and North Carolina, the age for criminal responsibility is set to16. This makes them the states with the lowest age threshold for prosecution as adults. Other states set it at 17 or 18.

The closest New York came to a reform in its juvenile justice laws was in early 2012. The State Governor, Andrew Cuomo put together a panel of experts to make proposals towards reforms in the juvenile justice system. Michael Corriero was one of them.

“We submitted our proposals based on my experiences and that of others. It looks like we may be seeing some results soon,” he said.

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Corriero concluded his lecture to the students of Coventry University, by discussing the movie “A Bronx Tale” directed by Robert De Niro, which reminds him of his own Italian-American childhood in New York.  The film is about a young Italian-American boy named Calogero (known as C) who grew up in the Bronx. The boy befriends Sonny, an elderly local mobster in his neighborhood.

Towards the climax of the movie, C reluctantly joins his friends to carry out an assault on some boys in another part of the borough. On their way, Sonny sees them and orders C to get out of the car. Later in the movie, C learns about the death of all his friends in the car he got out of. They were killed when those they planned to assault threw an explosive into their car.

“C didn’t want to lose face with his friends, so he joins them in that car,” Corriero said. “It is the pressure that comes from his environment,” Corriero said. He then likened himself to the elderly mobster in A Bronx Tale. “What I do is to pull kids like C out of the car like Sonny, out of the path of destruction for a better future. I led the same life in that movie. I see myself there and what could’ve happened to me if there was no one to pull me out.”


Featured Photo by Lupita0429

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