When a teenager on a joy ride with friends in Suffolk County in November 2004 tossed a 20-pound frozen turkey out the car’s rear window, it smashed through the windshield of an oncoming car and into the face of its driver, nearly killing her.
But instead of going to prison for up to 25 years, the teen, Ryan Cushing, 18, was allowed to plead guilty 10 months later to a reduced charge of second-degree assault because the driver, Victoria Ruvolo, requested it.
As a result of Ruvolo’s compassion — and the extraordinary scene that happened in the courtroom — a Jewish lawyer-psychologist at the Suffolk County Probation Department was moved enough to develop a program of repentance for juveniles, one believed to be the first in the country.
After the tearful Cushing entered his plea and was leaving the courtroom — knowing he would be sentenced to only six months in jail, five years probation and one year of community service — he stopped in front of Ruvolo, who was seated at the end of a row. A hush fell over the courtroom as he reached out, embraced her and the two cried openly.
“I’m so thankful that you are doing well,” he whispered.
Ruvolo, whose face had to be rebuilt using metal plates and screws in a 10-hour operation, caressed his cheek and rubbed his back.
“You’re such a wonderful person,” he continued, sobbing uncontrollably as others in the courtroom choked back tears.
“Never did I intend to hurt anyone, especially someone as special as you. I prayed for you every night; I never meant this to happen.”
“It’s OK, it’s OK,” Ruvolo told him. “I am going to be watching over you now. Just do good with your life.”
Rarely in the criminal justice system does the wrongdoer have a chance to apologize to his or her victim. Often legal orders of protection keep the two apart, or lawyers tell their clients not to have any contact with the person they wronged. Thus, the words “forgive me” are rarely uttered.
But the program for youngsters in Suffolk County’s juvenile justice program offers them a chance to do just that in writing or in person.
It was started five years ago after Robert Goldman, who is now the supervising psychologist with the Suffolk County Probation Department, saw how meaningful the interaction between Ruvolo and Ryan had been.
As part of his year of community service, Cushing was required to address youngsters in Goldman’s program, called TASTE. The acronym stands for Thinking errors, Anger management, Social skills and Talking Empathy.
It is for those 12 to 15 years old who have pleaded guilty to a variety of crimes, including shoplifting, criminal trespass, assault, graffiti and aggravated harassment. They have already been sentenced to probation or had their cases adjourned in contemplation of dismissal.
“I wanted to see if I could meet her challenge — to create a venue where Ryan could meet her challenge to do something good with his life,” Goldman said. “There’s no place to make teshuvah [repentance/return] in the criminal justice system. The word means return, and Ryan had been able to return to his victim and embrace her, something you can’t do behind bars.”
The hour-long probation sessions — which number from four to 16, depending on the needs of the youngster — also involve the participation of the youth’s parents. Goldman and his colleagues at the Probation Department run the program, which focuses on teaching the juveniles about self-control.
The key to the program is to have youngsters stop and think of the long-term consequences of their actions before they act.
New York State is the only state in the nation, Goldman said, that limits juvenile crime to the age of 16; it is 18 in the other states.
“The brain is not fully developed until the age of 18,” he said.
“Until then, we rely on the emotional part of the brain for decision making, and that is very impulsive. The frontal lobe — the thinking part of the brain — is the last to develop.”
Not only did Cushing speak to the TASTE program as part of his community service, but also he continued to speak to the groups for the next four years as a volunteer. Ruvolo said she also volunteered and has not stopped.
“I’ve spoken to more than 1,000 kids,” she said. “I have gone every month for the past six years. The classes range in size from 20 kids to more than 50 — one time the whole room was filled and there was standing room only.”
Before Ruvolo spoke to a class recently, Goldman told the youngsters about the case and then asked what Ruvolo should have done.
“Sue him,” someone yelled out.
“Do you really believe that?” Goldman asked.
“Beat him up,” said another youngster.
“Make him feel the pain,” added a third.
“Well,” Goldman said, “she’s right here. … She’s a real hero.”
Ruvolo was greeted with applause and then explained why she pushed for the lenient sentence.
“I couldn’t let revenge happen; that’s not me,” said Ruvolo, now 51, of Lake Ronkonkoma, L.I.
She said she and Goldman had just published a book about her decision to seek leniency for Cushing called “No Room For Vengeance,” and that she hoped her explanation would help others.
Goldman, who is also a lawyer, said in a later interview that he had been impressed by Ruvolo’s ability to change the mind of the Suffolk district attorney, who had initially spoken of throwing the book at Cushing.
“She took the justice system by the horns and made sure it addressed her needs,” he said. “At the same time, she was able to convince not only the DA’s office but everyone in the community that she had done the right thing.”
Ruvolo said her parents had taught her to “treat people the way you want to be treated. … How could I have moved on with my life knowing that he was rotting in jail?”
She said the fact that she had lost two brothers, a brother-in-law and a nephew to drugs, accidents and crime before they were 30 also played a factor in her decision. “I had seen all of these young lives end that had such potential. How could I take another life?” she asked.
At the time she made her decision to ask for leniency for Cushing, one of her sisters thought she was crazy. But the other, whose son had been killed in a car accident, said she “understood where I was coming from.”
If Cushing had been sentenced to 25 years in prison, Ruvolo said, she believes it would have left him “bitter and angry, and he would have come out of prison and done something worse to someone else.”
Asked about the incident, Ruvolo said Cushing never explained why he did it.
“He may have thought, ‘Let’s see it fly,’ and thrown it out thinking everyone would laugh,” she said. “He later wrote me a beautiful three-page letter about how he knows he was wrong. He wanted to give me some insight into his life. He didn’t have to do that.”
Ruvolo said the key lesson she seeks to impart in her comments to the classes is that they should think for themselves.
“When your friends say, ‘Come on let’s do it, we’re all in this together,’ remember that they will turn state’s evidence on you and you will be the one facing jail time. …
“What he did was a stupid, ridiculous act, and he learned from it. I know for sure that he has turned his life around. I don’t think he will be in trouble anymore.”
Goldman said the TASTE program has worked so well that the recidivism rate for those who complete it is about 10 percent. Statewide, the recidivism rate for those who wind up in juvenile jails is 80 to 85 percent, he said.
As a result, the administrative judge of the Suffolk County Family Court, David Freundlich, has given it his blessing, Goldman said.
“It’s a good thing judges have faith in probation to effectuate change better than jail,” he said. “As a result, there has been a precipitous drop in the number of juveniles sent to jail in the county.”
Goldman said his goal now is to get school districts to implement this program as an alternative to suspension. “Rather than throwing them out of school, thereby rewarding them for their behavior, I would hold them accountable by putting them through this program and having them make peace with their victim — especially in the case of bullying.”
Ruvolo said she has had no second thoughts about her decision.
“I gave that kid a better life, and that’s the best gift of all,” she said.