Friday Morning Breakfast Club: One Judge, 30 Teenagers and Me

Long ago, when I was single, I’d sometimes take my dates to night court. It was cheap–in fact, it was free–and I got credit for being far edgier than I actually was.

Perhaps an even more reliable aphrodisiac was the beeper I wore while working for the Department of Correction’s public-information office. But that’s a whole other story.

In any case, I recently returned to Centre Street for a spectacle as riveting as anything I’d witnessed, and certainly more inspiring: Michael Corriero’s courtroom.

Mr. Corriero is Manhattan’s Youth Part judge, and every Friday morning dozens of 14-to-18-year-olds accused of violent crimes–kidnapping, rape, assault, armed robbery–get shipped to him from Rikers Island and other facilities run by the Department of Juvenile Justice. He has the power to get them out of jail and into a program where they’re expected to go to school, observe strict curfews, and report to his courtroom once a month so he can monitor their progress. If they complete the treatment successfully, their crimes are purged from the record.

Or he can send them back to prison.

“I’m not so interested in exactly what they say, but their demeanor reacting to me,” he said in his chambers on a recent Friday.

But the teenagers are only part of the drama. Were Daumier to paint the scene in the courtroom (though perhaps Goya would be a better choice), or were Dickens to commit it to literature, they would undoubtedly be as drawn to the dispirited families of the accused as to the defendants themselves. Enveloped in an almost palpable mist of despair, the families sit in two cramped rows in the back.

Sitting slightly above the fray, Judge Corriero seems less a jurist than a minor deity. He asks a girl arrested for armed robbery how her baby in foster care is doing. He orders a defense lawyer whose client expresses an interest in math to buy him a ticket to see A Beautiful Mind . And he chastises the parents of an incarcerated teenager for bringing his two younger brothers to court with them.

“Isn’t today a school day?” he demands. “I’d rather you be in school.”

I know I run the risk of seeming insensitive by comparing what is very serious business–lives literally hang in the balance here–to theater. But Judge Corriero’s courtroom achieves what only the best drama does–especially for those of us fortunate enough to have escaped poverty and addiction. It takes us out of our comfortable, confident little lives and teaches us something about the condition of others.

The questionable triumph of this city is that we’ve performed a vanishing act on the poor. You can go about your life never having to sidestep anything more distasteful than the dog droppings on your Park Avenue sidewalk.

“You rarely see a lone child robber or a lone child burglar,” the judge said, explaining why society should resist the temptation to throw away the key on all these kids. “For example, three kids involved in a knifepoint robbery–one holds the knife, another is the lookout, another is the recipient of the property from the victim. You have to look at the individuality of the child, the extent of his involvement, and make decisions on that basis.”

On this Friday, three high-school football players were brought before Judge Corriero. They’d been arrested for robbing a Chinese-restaurant delivery man at gunpoint on East 158th Street using a BB gun.

The judge saved his harshest words for the team’s quarterback. “You’re on Rikers Island now,” he said. “You like the people you meet there? You like the feel of the bars? The fact that you have to go to the bathroom in front of everybody? You like the smell? You think of that the next time you’re walking down the street thinking of doing something stupid.”

If a kid is willing to plead guilty, the judge can enroll him in a youth-offender program on the spot, as he did these three. The process, including the judge’s harangue, takes no more than five minutes. On this day, he heard 31 cases before lunch.

As impressive as Judge Corriero seems throwing lighting bolts down from the bench, one is allowed to wonder how successful these programs are in the long run. While he said that no empirical studies have been done of the recidivism rate among adolescents sentenced to the treatment programs, rough estimates are that only about 20 percent of them return to jail. Those who don’t go through the programs go back to prison between 60 and 80 percent of the time, he said.

One of his cases on this morning involved an adult who first appeared in the judge’s court room five and a half years ago as an adolescent. “When you add up all the times he’s had to appear in front of me over six years, you do develop a relationship,” said the judge.

Cops pulled over a car he was driving and found drugs in the back seat. A smooth talker, he said the drugs were found on a friend and that he didn’t know anything about them.

“The question,” the judge said, “is why are you driving around with people who carry?”

“I’m not trying to make an excuse,” the man said. “But my mom just came out of surgery.” He claimed that he was on his way to the hospital.

“Why do you make it so difficult for yourself?” he asked.

“Judge, you’re 100 percent right.”

Judge Corriero released him on his own recognizance. “His violations of probation have been minor,” he said.

At 59, the judge’s athletic looks make him seem a couple of decades younger. And he isn’t unfamiliar with overcoming tough odds. He grew up in Little Italy, the first member of his family to go to college. But the judge had advantages these kids don’t, including the nuns at the Maryknoll Missionaries in Chinatown, who educated him and considered discipline a short cut to divinity.

By 1 p.m., the courtroom is nearly empty as most of the family members have departed–some in tears. One of the last cases of the morning was a robbery involving a teenager who seemed especially young.

“Am I going home for my birthday?” the kid asked.

“No,” Judge Corriero replied. In fact, he’d scheduled the teenager’s next court appearance for his birthday. “You’ll be with us,” he said gently. “Do you want to change the date so it’s not on your birthday?”

The kid nodded shyly. “Every Friday,” said the judge, “is like an emotional roller coaster for us.”