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An Ex-street Gang Hood, Now on the Bench, Urges a Better Deal for Juvenile Offenders

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“Joe Sorrentino is the best juvenile court judge in the world,” says trial lawyer F. Lee Bailey. Sorrentino, 38, a referee in juvenile court and a municipal court judge pro tem in Los Angeles, brings an astonishing background to the bench. A member of a street gang in Brooklyn, Sorrentino was sent to the reformatory at 14, to jail and discharged from the Marine Corps for fighting at 18. Then he did an abrupt about face. He began attending night high school, eventually graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara (student body president) and, at 29, from Harvard Law. Married and father of a 5-year-old son, Joe Jr., Sorrentino has become a crusader for juvenile rights, written an autobiography, Up from Never, and two other books. He discussed juvenile crime and the courts with Stacy Jenel Smith for PEOPLE.

Why did you join a street gang?

That’s where the action was in the neighborhood. I worked during the day as a chicken plucker, scraping up droppings. But at night I was a “Condor.” I’d put on this shimmering satinette jacket and strut down the street with 50 Condors and 50 Condorettes. It was like stepping into a comic book, an exhilarating experience.

What made gang life so glamorous?

We created this heroic make-believe image of ourselves. As individuals, we weren’t anybody. But when we became Condors, we made the newspapers: “Condors Wreck Bowling Alley,” or “Condors Shoot Up School.” It made us feel important.

What caused your turnaround?

The murder of my idol, our gang leader. I was out to be just like him, and then I saw him with his head blown off. I had to identify the body. I found we weren’t comic book heroes.

Have juvenile institutions changed from those you knew as an offender?

Very little. When I was at New York City’s Youth House in the 1950s, we were locked in 24 hours a day. To pass the time, we decorated ourselves with homemade tattoos. We would diagram a figure, smear it with ink and then, with a thousand pricks of a safety pin, drive it under our skin. Well, today if you go into a juvenile hall in Los Angeles, in Detroit or in Pittsburgh, you’ll see girls with these same homemade tattoos.

What else remains the same?

Most institutions are still both barren and overcrowded. The Los Angeles Juvenile Hall has a capacity of 576, and they’ve stuffed 700 kids in there. They shoot tranquilizers into the more rebellious inmates, and at other institutions, in Texas, for example, physical repression is used—beatings and dogs trained to go after kids.

Why has so little changed?

People do not want to talk about any of this because it’s so explosive. They want to shove it under the rug, but it’s not going to go away. The rate of recidivism—youthful offender repeaters—is now over 50 percent.

Why has juvenile crime increased?

The erosion of the family is one cause. In the Los Angeles City School system, 51 percent of the children in ghetto areas are from one-parent homes. The traditional strong father image is disappearing. Many kids in juvenile courts are merely the biological product of their parents, and no more.

What about other causes?

Poor education is another. Compton, Calif. has the lowest reading scores in the state—and the highest crime rate. Kids are sent to juvenile court who can’t even follow the directions telling them how to get there. They can’t read the forms.

Has violence in films and on TV had any effect?

I see a coldness about killing. The desensitizing caused by the Vietnam war—the body counts—is partly to blame. This is the generation that has grown up watching an average of four killings a day on television. And the increasing availability of guns is not helping either.

But guns have been available for decades. Why the difference now?

In my youth, there were guns, but they were less in vogue and harder to get. There were a hundred in my gang—the average size in New York. Each gang had maybe one or two factory handpieces. Now we’ve had 30 million guns dumped into American cities in the last 10 years, and a lot of those have filtered down to kids.

How have all these causes affected female crime?

There has been a radical change in the nature of offenses with which girls are charged. At one time they came into the juvenile system on morals charges—prostitution, runaways. Now they’re filling the ranks of felons.

Does women’s liberation deserve a share of the blame?

It’s unfair to blame women’s liberation, although it’s most likely a side effect. Women are no longer forced into a narrow groove. They have all the potentials open, including crime.

Why the huge backup of juvenile court cases?

The whole judicial system is bursting at the seams. There were 106,000 marijuana cases in California in a single year, and tens of thousands of trials involving drunkenness, truancies and runaways. We’re trying to regulate and control every possible manifestation of human conduct through the legal system. Courts have become mindless dinosaurs for juveniles and adults. The odds are 200-1 in New York City against an accused felon going to prison.

How effective is juvenile justice?

Out of necessity, we have to remove the hard core youths from the streets. They can’t be left in the community because they’re just too dangerous. But “put away” a kid who is not hard core, expose him to the influences in the reformatories and the jails, and he’ll turn into an incorrigible criminal.

What effect does an arrest have on a juvenile?

If a kid gets in trouble at a young age, 13 or 14, on a minor offense, he’ll be penalized for the rest of his life. The New York Civil Liberties Union reports that 75 percent of employment agencies in New York will not refer somebody for a job if they have an arrest on their record. And an arrest record doesn’t include all the details of what happened. Take the case in California of the 14-year-old boy who was arrested for kissing his 13-year-old girlfriend in public. He was reprimanded and sent home. But his record will always show that he was once arrested for child molestation.

But if the juvenile is innocent, can’t his record be cleared?

The record on expungement is a labyrinth of chaos. Procedures do exist to seal or expunge a record at the state level. But neither process wipes out local police records. Only California and Kansas have had the wisdom to provide for that.

Can juvenile crime be reduced?

Solutions will have to embrace all social institutions as well as individuals—teachers, police, parents. I feel more businessmen should come forward with a commitment. In El Monte, Calif., for instance, the Chamber of Commerce created jobs for youths, defusing the gang activity in the community.

What attempts have been made to improve institutions?

One example would be Florida’s old Dade County Youth Hall. The day I visited, the assistant supervisor was leaving, having just resigned. He had set up a school where crafts such as pottery and ceramics were taught. It was proving a success and the explosive atmosphere was dissipating. The official was leaving because his craft school had been ordered closed by county officials.

Why must juvenile institutions be changed?

Because in giant institutions the criminal ethic predominates. The influence of society is crushed. The philosophy of the inmates takes over.

What would be the ideal solution?

The ideal would be to rechannel young offenders into group houses where supervision would be given at an individual level.

Has this kind of system been tried?

Yes, for example, in Massachusetts the Department of Youth Services closed its juvenile jails and juvenile halls. Now most inmates are placed in boarding schools, private schools and specialized homes. The system has proved successful. A 1974 interim study conducted by Harvard showed that the rate of repeaters had been cut in half.

Why haven’t other states adopted this practice?

Even in the face of catastrophic failure, we are often afraid to try new things. It’s self-defeating timidity.