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.
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, 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.
Now Judge Corriero, 67, retired from the bench, is trying to keep his side of the bargain.
“Wu earned his second chance,” the judge wrote in a letter supporting a petition to Gov. David A. Paterson for a pardon that would erase Wu’s criminal record and stop the deportation proceedings. “He should have the opportunity to remain in this country.”
The letter is one of dozens of testimonials, including appeals from Wu’s fiancée, mother and sisters, who are all citizens; from the Police Benevolent Association, where Wu used to work; and from his employers at the Centerline Capital Group, a real estate financial and management company, where his boss, Tom Pope, calls Wu “a shining star.”
But under laws enacted in 1996, the same year Wu was sentenced, the immigration judge hearing the deportation case has no discretion to consider any of it. For Wu, who remains in a cell in the Monmouth County Correctional Institute in Freehold, N.J., the best hope may be that the Manhattan district attorney will retroactively allow him the “youthful offender” status that would scrub his record clean.
“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.”