Javier Gonzalez, a 24-year-old from the South Bronx, looks down at the floor as he speaks. The traces of prison are tattooed on his body. “Dear God,” starts off the ink on his right arm, “I am a sinner and need forgiveness.”
Gonzalez was arrested for the first time when he was 16 and was caught carrying a knife. A charge for weapons possession sent him to the Mohawk Correctional Facility, a medium security prison near upstate Utica, where the median age of inmates is 35.
That initial charge altered the rest of his life. If Gonzalez had been arrested in Connecticut or New Jersey, he would not have to report his record to future employers. But because he was arrested at age 16 in New York State, Gonzalez was considered an adult and his record follows him wherever he goes. “If you’re old enough to commit the crime, you’re old enough to do the time,” he said. “That’s how they look at it.”
Approximately 46,000 minors come into contact with the New York courts each year. In 2009, 47,339 youths between the ages of 16 and 17 were arrested. More than half of those arrests were in New York City, according to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services.
New York and North Carolina are the only two states that set criminal responsibility at the age of 16. While the law is at the discretion of the court judge, minors arrested after their 16th birthday and sentenced to more than a year are often tried as adults and incarcerated in adult correctional facilities.
New York also treats teens 13 to 15 years old as adults when they are accused of murder or other serious crimes. They are considered juvenile offenders, and are subject to mandatory imprisonment unless the ruling judge decides to make an exception.
According to a 2011 report by the Governor’s Children’s Cabinet Advisory Board, these youth are “systematically disadvantaged” because having an adult criminal record “reduces lifelong opportunities for education, employment and housing.”
Since he left the bench in 2008, former New York judge Michael Corriero has been on a mission to change the age of criminal responsibility in the state. Corriero, who served as a judge in various state courts for 28 years, has been touring New York talking to community and family organizations about the “Raise the Age” campaign, a movement that aims to increase the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18. Now, he and others say, the turning point could come as soon as January when reform of the current laws will come before the state legislature.
“Children in Hunts Point should have the same opportunities as children in Scarsdale,” said Corriero at a recent community forum at the Hyde Leadership Charter School in the South Bronx. “We are denying young people the American dream by judging them for poor choices made at a young age.”
Elmer Blanco, a youthful offender once judged in Corriero’s courtroom, was like the many teens that Corrieo wants to help. The scar over Blanco’s left eyebrow is a reminder of his days with Dominicans Don’t Play, an American-Dominican street gang that he considered family when he lived in the Bronx. “I got jumped so bad I don’t even know what they hit me with,” said Blanco, now 24, describing one of his last street fights with the gang. “I got messed up real bad.”
When Blanco was 15, he had already had a run-in with the law and had spent a year in a juvenile detention facility. He was on probation for five years.
After his release, Blanco returned to the Bronx and enrolled in a new school, but maintained ties to his old group. “All of a sudden, it’s like you’re the man,” said Blanco, talking about the status his conviction gave him. “I’m thinking I’m cool because I was arrested, my friends are giving me props.”
Shortly after leaving “juvi,” Blanco was back in trouble. He was “jumped” by some guys in school — an action that, in his mind, called for revenge. Blanco hid a glass soda bottle in his North Face jacket, knowing that the metal detectors at school would not pick up on the weapon.
“My mentality that day was: ‘I’m going to get arrested, I don’t care,” he said.
The punches started. “I took the one nearest to me, I took the bottle and hit him three times in the face,” said Blanco. “The last time, he got cut because the bottle was already open.” The other boy required 17 stitches.
Because of the assault, Blanco was sentenced to 18 months at the Youth Leadership Academy, a boot camp-style juvenile detention center run by the Office of Children and Family Services in upstate New York.
Blanco credits the center for instilling discipline in him, although he continued to get into trouble a few more times after his release. He was fortunate to land in Corriero’s courtroom. The judge, he said, could have locked him up for violating parole, but instead gave him multiple chances to turn his life around. “Corriero was super mad at me,” Blanco said. “But he still gave me the benefit of the doubt.”
“There is so much talk today about this school-to-prison pipeline,” said Corriero, referring to the policies that are viewed as pushing students out of school and into the criminal justice system. Corriero believes that reform could “derail that pipeline” by addressing the issues that bring teens into the system when they first come into contact with the court.
“How many of you would like to be defined by what you did at 14?” asked Corriero, as heads shook from side to side in the high school gym at the community forum in the South Bronx. Former youthful offenders such as Blanco often accompany him for these talks.
“Come January, we will need you to make sure that legislators hear you,” he said. “I need to do it with you, I need your activism.” Corriero is looking for community members to support his campaign by calling their elected officials and asking them to raise the age of criminal responsibility. He wants to have community organizations backing him up when lawmakers address the issue.
Corriero views the “Raise the Age” campaign as an initial step towards reform in the juvenile justice system. Several studies, such as those conducted by the Vera Institute of Justice and the MacArthur Foundation, show that children and teenagers are developmentally different from adults and require special treatment.
As judge, Corriero presided over Manhattan’s Youth Part, a court set aside within the adult court system that deals exclusively with the cases of 13 to 15-year-olds charged with serious and violent crimes. “My experience in the Youth Part really confirmed that we really want to be dealing with kids in a different way,” said Corriero. In his 2006 book, Judging Children as Children, he outlined his views on the current system and offered a detailed reform.
As a former judge, Corriero is one of the few public figures lobbying for change, but he now has support from New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippmann. “Put simply, the adult criminal justice system is not designed to address the special problems and needs of 16 and 17-year-olds,” said Lippmann in a speech to the Citizens Crime Commission in September, 2011. “Prosecuting these adolescents in the criminal courts does not improve public safety or the quality of life in our communities.”
Corriero considers Lippmann’s support a crucial step because it is the first time in decades that someone in his position has publicly addressed the issue and supported the cause. The laws regarding juvenile criminal responsibility have not been addressed in legislation since 1978 when it was decided to officially treat juvenile offenders 16 and older as adults.
Lippmann asked the New York State Permanent Sentencing Commission to work with Corriero to “produce the blueprint for a more modern and more effective juvenile justice system.”
Corriero views the next few months as a window of opportunity that has never existed before, and hopes that the commission’s upcoming proposals will be a priority for the legislature in early 2013.
According to the New York Center for Juvenile Justice, an organization formed by Corriero with the mission of promoting fair reform for juveniles in the criminal system, children convicted as adults have no access to the therapy and rehabilitation they need. If they were tried in Family Court, they would be more likely to get specialized services.
Corriero also noted that 60 to 80 percent are re-arrested within 36 months of their release – a statistic that both Javier Gonzalez and Elmer Blanco illustrate. Recidivism rates are high for teens convicted as minors and adults, an issue that in Corriero’s view should be addressed through specialized services in Family Court.
Although Corriero sees solutions in Family Court, he does not see it as ideal. “Before we can transfer all of these kids to the Family Court, we have to re-invest in the Family Court as an institution,” he said. “We need more Family Court judges… we need more services and the expansion of services, we need more facilities that are child friendly.”
After being out of prison for two years, Gonzalez found himself back behind bars serving a second sentence for drugs and, once again, weapons possession. Blanco also re-offended, but unlike Gonzalez, the opportunities he was offered through the Family Court have led to education and employment. He is now a business administrator at the Children’s Aid Society, an organization he was introduced to as part of the rehabilitation program Blanco completed with his second sentence.
Studies show that children and teens prosecuted in adult criminal court are more likely to re-offend because they don’t get services that they need. “It’s sort of mind-boggling,” said the Rev. Que English, president of the Bronx Clergy Criminal Justice Roundtable, a coalition of community-based and faith-based organizations that work together to identify and address community issues. English views the current policy as a way to guarantee recidivism.
“You’re putting them in an adult population so you’re messing with their psyche,” she said. “They’re not ready for adulthood. They still need that walking by the hand; they still need that mama, and they still need that family structure.”
Despite all the evidence supporting reform, Corriero has struggled to convince others. “It’s a tough sell when nobody is talking about spending money,” said Corriero. By Corriero’s estimates, it would take $80 million to reform Family Court all at once. Even though the overall investment for reform is high, he is convinced that over time, the state would save money. According to the Correctional Association of New York, it costs an average $226,320 to keep someone in a juvenile detention for one year in New York. Alternative community based programs in other states cost $2,500 to $15,000 per youth per year.
“Some people think the system works, but we’re locking up more people than almost any other nation in the world,” said Corriero. There are 2.3 million people currently imprisoned in the Unites States — approximately 1 percent of the population.
He pointed out the United States is not a signatory to the United Nations Convention to the Rights of the Child, which indicates that children under the age of 18 should get special treatment. “That’s why I say it has to be addressed at the level of morality, as a civil rights issue,” he said.
An argument against reform is that kids committing serious crimes shouldn’t get off easy just because they’re young, and should pay for their crimes just as adults. Corriero’s response to this is that those cases can be dealt with separately, “In a more intelligent way,” he said. In his view, it is only a small percentage of convicted minors, those charged with the most heinous of crimes, who should be treated with the same severity as adults.
Corriero believes that approximately 40,000 minors out of the approximate 46,000 minors that get arrested every year should be dealt with in the family court, and the remainder could be considered as adults on case-to-case basis.
“There are always ways in which we can identify the violent child,” said Corriero. “But the vast majority of children who come in contact with the criminal adult system are accused of non-violent offenses. They surely are redeemable.”
Randy Harper, the manager of a Bronx a residence where young people live while waiting for their cases to be addressed in the Family Court, strongly disagrees with Corriero’s campaign. Harper believes that if these teens aren’t addressed by the time they are in the 8th grade, it is a lost cause. “They have to realize there are consequences for their actions,” he said, adding that “18 is too late.”
Halper, who volunteers his Saturdays to coach basketball for kids at the Southeast Bronx Neighborhood Center, says the most important thing is to help youngsters see that they may have a future beyond the difficult circumstances of their neighborhoods.
Blanco graduated from high school, completed an associate degree at Bronx Community College, and went on to get his bachelor’s degree at Baruch College. He is considering getting a master’s degree and hopes to soon move out of his parent’s apartment. His record is now sealed.
“He’s cool,” Blanco said, referring to Corriero. “He gave me a lot of chances.”
Gonzalez on the other hand, is out of prison and done with parole, but finds himself unemployed, with unstable housing and a baby on the way. “I just came home, and I’m trying to get my life together,” he said. But he is pessimistic about the future. “I’ve got three felonies, who’s going to hire me?”