Judging Child as Child

The Hon. Michael A. Corriero was keynote speaker. You may recognize him from CBS Television Distribution’s syndicated court show HOT BENCH.

The Hon. Michael A. Corriero, who served as a judge for 28 years in the criminal courts of New York State, told his audience about the tragic tale of six year old Maria.

Maria was walking down the street holding her mother’s hand. Her estranged father approached them. Enraged that the woman was having an affair with his best friend, he slashed her across the face with a switchblade. He then stabbed the mother until she fell to the ground dying, still holding the little girl’s hand.

“Eight years later, Maria is in front of me, charged with slashing the face of a rival,” Corriero said during the 37th Annual Juvenile Delinquency Law Training Seminar on May 18.

“Is there any wonder that children who have experienced such acts of violence ultimately act out? This young girl was orphaned by the violence of her father.”

Corriero delivered the keynote address at the annual seminar, organized by the Juvenile Division of LA County Public Defender’s Office. The event took place at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels – Conference Center downtown LA and drew approximately 300 juvenile defenders and advocates across the state.

Corriero’s speech was titled “Judging Children as Children: How do we get the System to do it?”

The only way, Corriero said, is through holistic advocacy.

“I would not have known Maria’s background but for the preparation of the presentence memorandum by the legal aid attorneys representing her in a holistic way,” Corriero told the audience.

Juvenile Division CARE social workers and their supervisor, from left: Matt Hernandez, Alonso Fuente, Natalie Rojano-Jenkins, Suzie Oh (supervisor), and Katherine Ceron.

“There was a social worker assigned to the case working with the defense lawyer and they did this incredibly thorough social history investigation. Their presentation led me to believe that with appropriate intervention, Maria could recover from this violent act. And more importantly, would likely not reoffend.”

In his welcoming remarks, LA County Public Defender Ricardo García said juveniles should never be tried as adults in large part because of the key differences between adult and adolescent brains. In young brains, the lack of prefrontal cortex development limits the ability to delay and reflect — or think before acting.

“We hear from prosecutors and legislators today about how excited they are that we are ‘beginning’ to understand the developments of a child’s brain,” García said. “But anyone who has worked in the juvenile system has known this for decades. Rather than saying, ‘I told you so’ let’s just embrace it and keep moving that exciting way forward.”

Public Defender Ricardo García welcomes the group of more than 300.

García noted great strides in juvenile justice reform with the recent passages of Senate Bill 1391 — which prevents youths younger than age 16 from being tried as adults — and Senate Bill 439, which ends the prosecution of children under 12 in juvenile court.

Juvenile defenders were the backbone of the bills, he said.

“Each and every one of you who is involved in the juvenile justice system, you fight to change the way prosecutors, judges and legislators see our children,” García told the audience. “You force legislators to see the most vulnerable people you represent, not as super predators as they were deemed decades ago but as victims of abuse, victims of neglect, and children who are crucial to our future.”

Children such as Maria. The District Attorney originally recommended two to six years’ incarceration for Maria. With Maria’s tragic past, Corriero was able to persuade the DA and the victim’s family that a year in juvenile hall and another year in a comprehensive mental health program would result in a better outcome, not only for Maria but for society. With treatment, supervision and monitoring, the chances of Maria reoffending would diminish, he reasoned.

Assistant Public Defender Winston Peters, who oversees the Juvenile Division (right) and Omar Castaneda, who read his poetry about his experiences in the juvenile system during the event.

“We cannot look at these children simply by what they did,” said Corriero, who for 16 years presided over Manhattan’s Youth Part, a special court he created in the Supreme Court of New York State, focusing on treatment and social services for youths prosecuted in adult courts.

“We have to go deeper than that. Our job is to humanize them, personalize them and make sure that the court implements a disposition that recognizes the developmental differences of children.”

The day included many break-out sessions by LA County Deputy Public Defender experts including Robin-Bernstein-Lev on “The Fundamentals of Homicide Law” and Rourke Stacy-Padilla on “Mastering Juvenile Strikes.” Robert Lu provided the annual “Juvenile Delinquency Case Law Update.”

Deputy Public Defender Robin-Bernstein-Lev teaches seminar on “The Fundamentals of Homicide Law.”

The event also involved training from nationally recognized juvenile experts: Sue Burrell of the Pacific Juvenile Defender Center, Corene Kendrick of the Prison Law Office, Richard Braucher of the First District Appellate Project, Alaina Moonves-Leb of the Alliance for Children’s Rights, Sean Broderick of the Federal Public Defender’s Office, Maureen Pacheco of the LA County Alternate Public Defender’s Office, defense attorney John Ellis, and Drs. Scott F. Grover and David H. Howard.

In addition to the legal training, community-based-organizations including Saving Innocence, Disability Rights CA, Learning Rights Center, Immigrant Defenders Law Center, and many others, participated in a resource fair that provided attendees with valuable information to assist their clients. Two formerly incarcerated youths from Inside Out Writers, Omar Castaneda and Brandon Castro, helped to open the conference with their raw and impactful poetry.

Deputy Public Defender and co-organizer Rourke Stacy-Padilla teaches seminar on “Mastering Juvenile Strikes.”

The seminar’s lead organizers were Deputy Public Defenders Natasha Khamashta and Rourke Stacy-Padilla.

“The seminar is crucial for juvenile defenders statewide as they often are not provided the same training opportunities as attorneys who represent adults in the criminal justice system,” Stacy-Padilla said. “Many of the attorneys who regularly attend our conference tell us it is the only source of substantive training they receive all year.”