Judge Ruben Martino presides over the multi-jurisdictional courtroom that handles both housing and juvenile delinquency cases at the Harlem Community Justice Center. Carolyn Turgeon from the Center for Court Innovation sat down to talk with him about juvenile justice.
What sort of juvenile cases do you handle at the Harlem Community Justice Center?
We handle juvenile delinquency cases involving children under 16 who commit crimes. We take a different approach to what’s typically done and try to find ways to make a respondent’s whole situation better. We try to be service-intensive—performing assessments to find out what is leading this young person to engage in delinquent behavior, and then trying to provide services either in-house or in the community. The hope is that when some of the bigger issues are solved, the problems that appear as court cases will disappear as well.
We’re also trying to bring in neglect and abuse cases. We’re going through a series of planning meetings right now and we’ll start that in the next few months.
What is different about the way cases are handled here versus in a typical Family Court setting?
The difference is that we have a clinic, a range of services, and several different programs for youth on site. This gives us the ability to assess the children more quickly and get services in place right away. We really keep a hands-on approach during the process. If I want, I can get a daily report on how a particular child is doing. I have access to caseworkers who can go out there and get information for me. … I have people following up on all the cases I have, and with that information I can make more informed decisions about what should happen in each one.
The cases also tend to move a little bit more quickly here because I don’t have to wait so much. In Family Court I’d adjourn a case two, three, four times just to get a report—to find out what’s going on with the families, what’s going on with the kid. Now, by the second adjourn date I’m already getting initial assessments and reports. So that makes a huge difference.
The other thing is that … because there are services here, a presentment agency might be more willing to find alternative resolutions rather than just putting the child away somewhere. And they’re willing to do that only because we do have the extra resources, and we know there are real alternatives.
What is most challenging about your position here?
For me the challenge is to try to realize the potential of community court. We have all these ideals and goals, and I think we’re doing a great job but there’s still much more we could do to really make what we have here a model of what a community court should be.
We’re not always going to solve the underlying problem; we try, but we don’t do that in every case. There’s definitely more that can be done.
What is your interaction like with the clients or respondents?
The interaction is quite good. It’s part of the beauty of being in the community. I can walk to almost anyone’s home. I go into the community as often as I can and I think that creates a bond where there’s a sort of trust that I’m a community judge. Everyone might not agree with every decision that I make, but they know that I’m accessible and not someone far away who knows nothing about where they live or what they do.
Just the other day I was walking out for lunch and a young kid just came right next to me on a bicycle and says, “Hi, Judge Martino,” and it took me a few seconds to recognize him but he was one of the respondents in a delinquency case. I really couldn’t talk to him about anything, but I didn’t want to scare him off either, so I said, “Hi, how are you doing?” and he tried to ask me something about the case and I said, “You know you really have to speak to your lawyer, but I’ll see you soon and I hope everything’s going well.” I kept going then, but the point is, I’m out there.
I had another litigant the other day that came before me and said, “Oh, I was talking to some of my neighbors and they said that you’re a nice judge and you’re fair,” and you know that’s good, the word is out there. I’m glad they’re saying good things about me but the real point is that I’m here and they know that I’m here and I think it builds trust and confidence in the court system in general that we try to be responsive to community needs. That’s very important.
Are you from East Harlem?
I’m not from this community but I’m from the Bronx, and I’ve always grown up in poor communities so it’s not unfamiliar to me. The issues here and the people here are very similar to where I grew up. My parents are Puerto Rican. I grew up in a Spanish-speaking household and my parents were very poor. We weren’t in the projects but we were right next to the projects so I can relate to a lot of the issues that come before me. And I can relate to the people. This one reminds me of my aunt, this one’s like my grandmother. I feel that I fit right in, and I hope that people feel that way about me in the community, that there’s not much difference between us.
Under what circumstances do you apply the ultimate sanction—state placement?
It depends on the case. The ultimate sanction is to send someone to restrictive placement in a secure facility somewhere, but that’s the last resort. I think we try a little bit harder in Harlem to not remove someone from their home. We do everything possible to avoid that, but there are some cases where state placement is really in the community’s and the child’s best interest. We had a case not long ago where I took a chance on a young man and allowed him to go home. The case was about to be restored because he wasn’t attending school (one of the conditions I had imposed on him), but before they even restored the case he was arrested for robbery. I had no choice but to remove him because nothing we had tried to keep him on track worked. It was clear that I couldn’t keep him in his present situation, and we had to take the most drastic action. So that happens here at Harlem, too, but I think the difference here is that everyone is willing to try a little bit more to keep kids in their homes and flood the family with services to try to solve the problem.
What advice would you give to other judges interested in this kind of court?
You really have to believe that there are other ways to handle the cases that come before us—alternatives that are more meaningful and more lasting. And though we do have an obligation to decide legal cases, sometimes the outside issues and problems leading to the legal case are just as important. If a court has the resources to get involved in that, then that betters society and betters the justice system. It’s not just a Band-aid approach. We strive to solve these underlying fundamental problems a family might be facing. And as I said before we don’t always reach that ideal, but we try. In shooting for the sky, you hope to get partway there.