Credit Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times
UPPER MARLBORO, Md. — “Judge Dawson, he don’t play,” a parent once said about Herman C. Dawson, the main juvenile court judge in Prince George’s County. And on this Tuesday morning, Judge Dawson was definitely not in a playing mood.
“Who’s in court with you today?” he demanded of Tanika, the 16-year-old standing before him in handcuffs.
“My mom,” she said.
“I know that,” Judge Dawson snapped.
An honors student, Tanika had never been in trouble with the law before. But for the past year, ever since she was involved in a fight with another girl at her high school, Judge Dawson had ruled her life, turning it into a series of court hearings, months spent on house arrest and weeks locked up at a juvenile detention center in Laurel, Md.
Most recently, he had detained her for two weeks for violating probation by visiting a friend on the way home from working off community service hours. Now he was deciding whether to release her.
“I’m hesitating because I don’t know whether you got the message,” he said.
Juvenile court judges in the United States are given wide discretion to decide what is in a young offender’s best interest. Many, like Judge Dawson, turn to incarceration, hoping it will teach disobedient teenagers a lesson and deter them from further transgressions.
But evidence has mounted in recent years that locking up juveniles, especially those who pose no risk to public safety, does more harm than good. Most juvenile offenders outgrow delinquent behavior, studies find. And incarceration — the most costly alternative for taxpayers — appears to do little to prevent recidivism and often has the opposite effect, driving juveniles deeper into criminal behavior.
“Once kids get in the system, they tend to come back, and the farther they go, the more likely they are to keep going,” said Edward Mulvey, a psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and the author of a major study of delinquent youths.
Slowly, policy makers have begun to heed this message. After decades when states grew more punitive in their approach to juvenile crime, locking up more and more youths, more than a dozen have now revised statutes or regulations to avoid the overuse of incarceration, among them New Jersey and Indiana.
But judges are not always so quick to follow. And often the judges most resistant to change are those most determined to help troubled youths, juvenile delinquency experts say.
Judge Dawson is an example. Presiding in Courtroom D-15 of the mammoth county courthouse here over cases that range from shoplifting to armed robbery, he has won a reputation as a jurist who brooks no excuses and involves himself deeply in the lives of the teenagers who come before him.
Raised by a single mother in the segregated South, he subscribes to a “tough love” philosophy that venerates hard work, education and personal responsibility as the antidotes to poverty, negative peer pressure, chaotic parenting and other forces that can tip children into delinquency.
But Judge Dawson’s critics, who include defense lawyers, delinquency workers and some parents of young offenders, say that in his zeal to reform wayward youths he goes too far — acting not just as judge but also as prosecutor, probation officer and social worker.
He relies too heavily on locking juveniles up, these critics say, contributing to incarceration rates that are among the highest in the state. His courtroom practices sometimes violate young offenders’ due process rights. And in several instances Judge Dawson has overstepped the law in an effort to keep juveniles locked up for longer periods — in October, a state appeals court ordered him to reconsider his disposition in four cases in which he had set minimum periods of confinement for juveniles, saying that the orders appeared to violate state law.
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