This weekend, the New York Times took a long, hard look at a crucial part of the justice system that often gets overlooked: judges. And the Times used as its main example a Maryland judge with some intense opinions on juvenile justice.
Judge Herman C. Dawson grew up in the south, was raised by a single mother, and rose in the ranks to become the main juvenile court judge in Prince George’s County. You might think that a biography like that would make him sympathetic to the struggling teens who appear in his courtroom every week. And you would be wrong.
The Times reports how Dawson’s “extreme” version of judicial tough love has led him to lock up kids for relatively minor offenses, such as missing a court date. And while nationwide, juvenile detentions are on the decline, they’re going up-up-up in Prince George’s, rising 115 (!!) percent between 2009 and 2014. Dawson’s strict policies have not made him popular among residents, as public comments about him (“worst judge in Maryland”) make clear. (Fun fact: He also apparently was once arrested for causing a major disturbance at an Outback Steakhouse after a female patron refused his advances.)
The funny thing is, the problem is not that Dawson doesn’t care about the kids, but rather that he cares too much. He sets strict probation considerations, mandating a particular GPA or keeping a kid on house arrest for months. If the teenagers violate probation, they risk getting locked up, even for these relatively minor offenses. And studies have shown that placing kids in juvenile detention doesn’t lower recidivism rates. But as Dawson’s comments to the Times make clear, he sees himself on a mission to discipline errant children until they learn the errors of their ways.
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