Friday, February 19, 2010

Judge Keeps His Word

Todd Heisler/The New York Times - From left, Mr. Wu’s mother, Floren Wu-Li; his sister Jenny Gong; and his fiancée, Anna Ng. Mr. Wu, 29, an executive who came here at age 5, faces deportation for muggings when he was 15.

The judge and the juvenile had grown up on the same mean streets, 40 years apart. And in fall 1996, they faced each other in a New York court where children are prosecuted as adults, but sentenced like candidates for redemption. The teenager, a gifted student, was pleading guilty to a string of muggings committed at 15 with an eclectic crew in Manhattan’s Chinatown. The judge, who remembered the pitfalls of Little Italy in the 1950s, urged him to use his sentence — three to nine years in a reformatory — as a chance to turn his life around.

“If you do that, I am here to stand behind you,” the judge, Michael A. Corriero, promised. The youth, Qing Hong Wu, vowed to change.

Mr. Wu kept his word. He was a model inmate, earning release after three years. He became the main support of his immigrant mother, studying and working his way up from data entry clerk to vice president for Internet technology at a national company.

But almost 15 years after his crimes, by applying for citizenship, Mr. Wu, 29, came to the attention of immigration authorities in a parallel law enforcement system that makes no allowances for rehabilitation. He was abruptly locked up in November as a “criminal alien,” subject to mandatory deportation to China — the nation he left at 5, when his family immigrated legally to the United States.

Mr. Wu with his fiancée. When he was jailed last fall, he reminded Judge Corriero of his old promise to stand by him.

Now Judge Corriero, 67, retired from the bench, is trying to keep his side of the bargain. “The law is so inflexible,” said Judge Corriero, now executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of New York City and the author of “Judging Children as Children: A Proposal for a Juvenile Justice System.” The 2006 book calls for a justice system that reduces future crime rates by nurturing those who can learn from their mistakes, instead of turning them into career criminals.

That was his aim, he said, when he presided over the special court known as the Manhattan Youth Part, his views shaped by his own childhood. The son of a longshoreman and a factory seamstress, he grew up in a tenement across the street from the Tombs — the Manhattan House of Detention — and was schooled by both Roman Catholic missionaries in Chinatown and the Mulberry Street Boys. While he avoided serious trouble, he saw how easily a careless choice could lead to culpability instead of accomplishment.

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