Maria D. Hernandez
Superior Court Judge Maria D. Hernandez '86 presides over efforts to keep troubled juveniles from succumbing to lives of crime. "The exposure I had at UCI opened my views, my perspectives, on the world," she says. Steve Zylius / UCI

University of California, Irvine alumna Maria D. Hernandez grew up in rural Fallbrook, surrounded by 8 acres of avocado groves. Her parents didn’t go to college, but they had a strong work ethic that they passed along to their daughter. Her father, in particular, has been an inspiration.

“My dad is one of the most loyal, ethical, hardworking people I’ve met in my life. He’s my hero,” she says. “He’s owned a gas station, and he’s worked in real estate. He instilled in me that you can do whatever you set out to accomplish.”

Hernandez had the kind of nurturing family, secure home life and access to education that children need to thrive, and she did – earning a bachelor’s degree in social ecology at UCI in 1986 and a law degree at Fullerton’s Western State College in 1991. After serving as a public defender, she was appointed an Orange County Superior Court commissioner in 2006 and a judge by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2009. Hernandez was assigned to the juvenile court in 2010 and has been its presiding judge for two years.

She works to deter troubled youngsters from descending into lives of crime, helping kids who typically don’t have the positive role models she had as a child. Many juvenile offenders who visit her courtroom have been in and out of foster homes. Some lack even the basic necessities, such as food and shelter.

“I have kids living under bridges; I have kids living in hotels,” Hernandez says. “If we could ensure that our children aren’t homeless, that they’re not having to worry about where they’re getting their next meal or where they’re going to spend the night, then they could focus on going to school every day.” That’s key, she says, to preventing them from becoming delinquents.

Hernandez meets regularly with teens in her courtroom at Orange’s Lamoreaux Justice Center to give them the guidance and hope missing in their lives. Some have done “serious time for serious crimes,” she says, and are struggling to make the transition back into society.

She also meets with participants in Boys Court, a program modeled after Girls Court that she started to keep youths between the ages of 12 and 17 from entering the criminal justice system. Most of the approximately 50 boys served by the program have substance abuse or mental health issues, and some have had minor run-ins with the law. They receive counseling, school tutoring and mentoring; each is assigned a social worker and an attorney.

“So much can be accomplished through a positive connection,” Hernandez says. “Children are not miniature adults. We need to reach them where they’re at [emotionally] and be realistic about the plans we put in place for them.”

In addition, Hernandez works with UCI researchers to determine which methods of intervention are most effective in setting at-risk minors on the path to productive, fulfilling lives. She recently discussed her career and the challenges facing the juvenile justice system:

How did your UCI undergraduate experience influence your career path?

Coming from a farm community, I was pretty sheltered. The exposure I had at UCI opened my views, my perspectives, on the world. The work that I saw being done by researchers and my professors in the 1980s was really forward-thinking. Henry PontellPaul JesilowBill Thompson – they really shaped what I wanted to do in a way that I hadn’t anticipated. [I learned about] some of the racial inequities and deficiencies in our criminal justice system. It’s a great system, but it has room for improvement, and I wanted to make it better. I wanted it to be more fair and objective.

What led you to become a juvenile court judge?

The whole judgeship was not on my radar. But I had a fire inside me to make a difference for people who didn’t have a voice. Even as a lawyer, I was drawn to the juvenile court. I worked in the public defender’s office for 15 years. We’d look into the backgrounds of adults charged with capital crimes during the penalty phase and ask, “What happened to them in their formative years?” And it became apparent to me that, for many, the system either didn’t intervene when it should have or, when it did, it was not with what we now know are appropriate interventions.

How can the court help minors who are starting to get in trouble with the law?

It has to be a holistic approach. We’re looking at a child’s history, education, mental health, abuse reports – it’s not limited to just what crime was committed in a delinquency case. It’s finding out what brought them into the system and what we can do to rectify it. We have to treat the whole family, because if you don’t fix the family and you put the child right back in there, the chances of success are not going to be great.

How has your collaboration with UCI researchers influenced your efforts?

We’ve had a great relationship with UCI, especially with the School of Social Ecology. The research that Jodi Quas and Elizabeth Cauffman have been doing is powerful. It has helped educate a lot of our justice system partners and policymakers about utilizing evidence-based, empirical data to make decisions that have an impact on reducing recidivism, [improving community] safety and leading to better outcomes. It has helped the juvenile court identify at-risk youth, and it has affected how we intervene and, ultimately, how we create case plans for them.

One of my favorite quotes is by Nelson Mandela: “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” We need to understand who the youth are, what they’ve been involved in, and what has caused them to be where they are. There’s a lot of great work that needs to be done, and it can be done.