Diane Marano's 25 years as an assistant prosecutor in Camden County's juvenile unit made her an expert in her field. As she neared retirement, however, she started Ph.D. studies, adding more depth to the topic she knew so intimately.
Her research - focusing on the relationship between young offenders and guns - became the basis of her recent book Juvenile Offenders and Guns: Voices Behind Gun Violence.
At 64, Marano now teaches at Rutgers-Camden. In the spring, she will teach two classes: Youth and Juvenile Justice, and Perspectives on Youth Violence. She hopes her dissertation and book can influence social policies she believes can change lives.
"There are few people who I can think of who are as bright and as accomplished as Diane, and yet are also as humble and modest as Diane," said James P. Lynch, a lawyer who was first assistant at the Camden County Prosecutor's Office when Marano oversaw the juvenile unit.
"She's sensitive, fair, and always had a unique perspective," said Lynch, who has known Marano since 1975, when both attended law school at Rutgers. "She always cared for the kids."
During an interview at her Medford home this week, Marano said that the year before her retirement in March 2007, Rutgers announced a new childhood studies program that took an interdisciplinary approach, accepting applicants with varied backgrounds, including law enforcement personnel, education employees, and social workers.
This, Marano said, was of particular interest, as she had often wondered whether the lives of those she prosecuted would be different if they had social support, mentors, and economic and educational opportunities.
"They have to have hope for a different future, and see there is a different way," Marano said. "Sometimes they can only see one future for themselves."
For her research, Marano interviewed 20 young men through the Juvenile Justice Commission who were incarcerated throughout the state and had a history with guns. She wanted to know why they chose to carry guns even though it was clear the behavior often left those who carried them in prison or dead.
Her book, published by Palgrave Macmillan in September, presents a series of vignettes as told by those she interviewed, identifies patterns that emerged among those who carried guns, and offers a portrait of street violence.
One interview stands out, Marano said. She recalled a teenage athlete aspiring to turn professional. When he was shot in the chest, doctors told him he could never achieve that goal.
"So he lost that dream, and he lost the ability to do something he loved," Marano said, recalling that he evolved from a gunshot victim to an offender who carried a gun. "The question remained that had this not happened to him, what would have happened in his life?"
As a prosecutor, she saw some horrific cases. Marano recalled one that involved a group of teens selling drugs. The adult dealer they worked for had given the group a gun. They lent it to a friend, and that friend lent it to another person. When the boys could not retrieve the gun, they launched an attack, stabbing their friend to death.
In another case, a teenage dealer looked so young that his customer offered a toy truck as payment for drugs because he had no money. "The boy was so insulted, he shot and killed him," Marano said.
As a prosecutor, Marano said, she spoke to victims, but rarely to the offenders. As a researcher, she wanted to speak to the other side. She said the young men often were aware they were making bad decisions, and acknowledged the severe consequences.
Most lived in homes where their single mothers struggled financially. They started to feel guilty asking for money to buy clothes or food, and felt the need to help with financial support.
"As they grew into their teens, they felt it was not right to be dependent on their mothers," Marano said. "That's when they first got involved with street life, selling drugs."
That, she said, led to feeling vulnerable to robbers looking to steal drugs, money, and jewelry, which led to using guns for protection. As time went on, she said, the men told her they started using the guns aggressively for business. Three said they had been shot as retaliation for their own behavior.
"Even though they had the gun for protection, having the gun increased their own risk," Marano said. "Almost every one of them said how guns made them feel protected, powerful, and more masculine."
"One said a gun is 'the key' to anything he wanted," Marano said. Another told her that walking around with a gun "can't be free," acknowledging the dangerous lifestyle.
Yet Marano remains optimistic. Things can change, she insists, and one generation of crime does not have to lead to another. Decades ago, she said, Irish and Italian immigrants often turned to crime when employment could not be found. The next generation, she said, made different decisions as educational and career opportunities were available.
Marano said her own father struggled as a child. His father, from South Philadelphia, died when he was 6, and his mother never remarried. Marano said her father and mother wanted more for their children.
Marano was the oldest of three siblings, and when she turned 5, the family moved to Runnemede, where the children could play outside in a yard.
She is thankful for the life her parents provided. She says that if there is "political will" to fund programs that provide family intervention and support, city teens can make better decisions.
She recalls that one of the men she interviewed said, "I think I would have been perfect if I had just grown up in a different atmosphere."