Interview with Joseph N. Sorrentino Juvenile Court Judge — What makes a kid go wrong? What role should the courts have in dealing with juvenile offenders? And what can be done to reduce the spiraling crime rate of our youth? To find out, Plain Truth interviewer Tom Hall talked with Joseph N. Sorrentino, himself a former gang leader in New York City, but now attorney-at law, juvenile court judge, and author of the book The Concrete Cradle.
HALL: Mr. Sorrentino, why did you write The Concrete Cradle? SORRENTINO: Well, I think juvenile crime is escalating very dangerously, and it is, I think, symptomatic of a society that is morally sick. Q. How do you explain this? A. There appears to be an erosion of the legitimacy of law in the United States. Young people today disrespect the law, disrespect the police, disrespect authority, and there's also the ethic: "I'll get what I can get." I had a young girl in my courtroom who mugged an old lady, and I questioned her afterwards about why she had done it. She said, "To get what I can get." That attitude is becoming pervasive. Q. What role are the courts being asked to play by society in stemming this rising tide of crime? A. I think an unrealistically large role. I would agree to some degree that the courts must accept their share of the blame because often they are unwisely indulgent. The odds are 600 to 1 that a youth who commits a burglary will not go to camp or be confined. Kids often come into court with the assumption that "you owe me one or two," which means that they can go out and commit one or two crimes. Also, I think the average time spent in confinement by a juvenile for murder is 18 months, which is an absurdly lenient penalty for taking a human life. It derogates the reverence for life, to give it such a cheap penalty. Kids know that. In fact, the older gang members put the guns in the hands of the younger ones because they know the young kids will be dealt with lightly by the system. I think the courts should toughen up. My brother, who is a detective in New York City, is furious with the courts. There's one judge back there that the police call "Cut-em-loose-Bruce" and another is "Let-em-go-Joe." But the assumption by society that the courts are going to solve the problem is a naive one. You have to do something about the home life of those youngsters and the larger environment of the youngster in terms of the values of American society. Q. In your book, you talk about the "non-parent." Could you elaborate? A. Well, a non-parent, I feel, is somebody who meets the financial obligations of the household but neglects the important function of teaching his child morals and being an example to that child. I think there's a proliferating phenomenon of emotional starvation. A lot of these kids in our society are so starved for emotional gratification that they plunge into drugs as an escape from their empty lives. Q. Is this phenomenon primarily in the ghetto? A. When I talk about the family deteriorating, I'm also talking about middle-class families. I had a case in my court where a young girl was running away from home... just a minor offense that had a parent shown up she would have been able to be returned to her family. She was very excited and looking forward to going home, and neither parent showed up in the courtroom. So I asked the bailiff to call the girl's parents and have them come and pick her up. The father, it appeared, was out of state. The mother got on the phone and said, "Listen, we don't want her. Why don't you just keep her there in juvenile hall. You can have her." Naturally I had to pass that message on to this little girl, and she just shattered in front of me — just started to cry and convulse. I wanted to get down from the bench and put my arms around her and really show the human emotion and affection that she needed, but all I could do in the capacity of a judge was order her back to a cell, pending placement in some foster home at some later time. And my prognosis in the case of this young girl is that eventually she will be found overdosing or she'll be a suicide case. Without a decent set of parents, a kid doesn't have much of a chance in this society. Q. What legal rights does the juvenile have compared to that of an adult when he is brought to court? A. Well, the Supreme Court has conferred upon a juvenile almost all the rights that adult defendants have, except the right to a jury trial. Q. Does that in any way change the approach of youth toward the courts? A. There is an atmosphere of advocacy about the courtroom. I remember one thirteen-year-old girl who came into the courtroom with her mother. This young girl had been missing for several days, and her mother ran over to her and said, "Where were you? What were you doing? I've been going out of my mind looking for you." The thirteen-year-old girl turned to her mother and said; "Speak to my attorney. I don't have to talk to you." A young boy was picked up by the police. He was twelve years old, picked up on the streets with glue on his lips, on his hands, on his nose — obviously sniffing glue which has toluene in it — destroying his brain cells. When he came into court, I think his attorney should have thought, "Well, what is in the best interests of this kid? Shouldn't he be committed to some sort of institution for treatment?" All the attorney could think about was winning the case. He disputed the fact that the prosecution did not have the can in court to demonstrate that it actually had the chemical toluene in it and objected on hearsay grounds. Eventually this kid got the thing kicked out on a technicality. He went back out sniffing glue and destroyed his brain. Q. You yourself used to be a gang leader in New York. Now you're a respected attorney. What was the key to your success? A. I guess there were good people along the way, a teacher, a probation officer, people who extended a hand.... But I think it was ultimately an inner resolution within myself that I was tired of being on the down side of life, of being abused and pushed around and being a nobody and a loser. I made the commitment that I was going to change my life. I went back to night high school at 21, which is rather late to start high school. Then, ten years later I emerged as the valedictorian at Harvard Law School, so it was quite a metamorphosis. Q. So we're all products of our own character, whether good or bad? A. Yes, I think ultimately the spiritual resources of the individual are the most important elements of his destiny.