Meet the Baddest Judge in Maryland: Judge Herman C. Dawson — “He Don’t Play”

Judge Herman C. Dawson of Prince George’s County, Md., is more quick than others to incarcerate young offenders. (Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times)
Judge Herman C. Dawson of Prince George’s County, Md., is more quick than others to incarcerate young offenders. (Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times)

“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.

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“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.

The juveniles who end up in his courtroom, Judge Dawson says, have often been allowed to run wild without consequences. “People have made too many excuses for them, and they end up believing it,” he said in a recent interview.

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.

“These child-saving judges, they think they’re doing something right-minded,” said Mary Ann Scali, deputy director of the National Juvenile Defender Center, “but in fact it’s very wrong-minded.”

Behind the Methods

In court, Judge Dawson, 60, likes to tell stories about his own childhood: how he mowed lawns and shined shoes to earn money for college; how he marched in civil rights protests without missing a day of school; how his mother did not let him or his brothers play baseball on Sunday, taking them to church instead.

“If I can make it out of Selma, Alabama, with all the opportunities kids have now, why is it they can’t take advantage of these opportunities and better themselves?” he asks.

A compact, energetic man whose eyes constantly rove the courtroom, he exchanges teasing barbs with lawyers, and is prone to high-pitched sighs and digressions about golf and fishing. Appointed to the Circuit Court in 1998 by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat, and elected to a 15-year term in 2000, he is a well-known figure in this mostly black county.

He speaks regularly at high schools and founded a mentoring and scholarship program for troubled youths, often selecting candidates from his courtroom. But a few months ago he halted the program, he said, after complaints that his involvement was inappropriate, given his role on the bench.

Judge Dawson says that in court, where his docket can run to 75 or more cases a day, his goal is to do whatever he can — including yelling, if necessary — to get the attention of young offenders.

“If I can get one of these black kids, Hispanic kids, get them out of high school and get them into college, I’ve done my job,” Judge Dawson said.

To that end, he engages juveniles in a wide-ranging public catechism, peppering them with questions about school performance (“How many times were you suspended last year?”), attire (“You can walk around in a fancy hillbilly shirt but you can’t get an education?”) and behavior (“Why do you do all these dumb things?”).

He routinely assigns dozens or even hundreds of hours of community service and requires that they be completed through the county’s work program, which charges a fee of $50 per case. He is adamant about restitution, bringing offenders back to court repeatedly until victims have been paid. And while most other judges waive court fees for juveniles, he insists on collecting them, even when parents protest that they cannot afford to pay.

“You are so lucky Judge Dawson is not here today, lucky, lucky, lucky,” a public defender told one boy whose parents had not paid the fee, usually $155.

But it is Judge Dawson’s use of incarceration that has stirred the most controversy.

In Maryland, as in other states, the number of juveniles held in locked facilities has declined over the past decade, a result of dropping juvenile crime rates and increasing efforts to keep juveniles at home when possible. A project in Baltimore led by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which is financing efforts in 39 states to develop alternatives to locking up juveniles while protecting public safety, has helped decrease the use of detention there by about 40 percent, according to state statistics.

But in Prince George’s County, the rates of detention and longer-term incarceration have remained high and have risen in the more than five years Judge Dawson has presided as the primary juvenile court judge, according to an analysis by the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services.

Commitments to institutional settings increased 55 percent from 2009 to 2014, while, statewide, commitments dropped an average of 5 percent over the same period and complaints filed with the Juvenile Services Department — an indicator of juvenile crime — decreased 63 percent.

Detentions of juveniles from Prince George’s County in secure facilities have risen 115 percent since 2005 — despite a slight decline since 2012 — though they have dropped 29 percent statewide. Only 12 percent of the juveniles were detained for committing new crimes. The rest were locked up for violations stemming from old offenses.

Prosecutors in the county find in Judge Dawson a willing partner.

“If they need to be detained, he’s not afraid to detain them,” said Yvonne Robinson, the assistant state’s attorney in charge of juvenile cases.

But public defenders believe that the high detention rates are driven in part by the multitude of review hearings Judge Dawson schedules to monitor juveniles’ progress. The hearings, the public defenders said, place a teenager’s behavior under a microscope, allowing prosecutors to seize on violations they might never have heard about otherwise.

“I think he cares about the kids,” said Erin Josendale, chief of the public defender’s juvenile division in Prince George’s County. “But having that level of involvement, at least in our county, creates significant due process concerns.”

In one of two interviews in his chambers, Judge Dawson said that the reviews were needed because the Juvenile Services Department often failed to properly monitor its charges. And he defended his use of detention, saying that it was sometimes the department that asked for a young offender to be detained. For the most part, he said, he reserved incarceration for juveniles who had repeatedly committed serious offenses.

“I am looking at the nature of the offense and the harm that the person may cause,” he said.

Over more than three months that a visitor observed his courtroom, Judge Dawson detained juveniles who had cut off electronic monitoring bracelets, had been “out of control” at home, had smoked marijuana while on probation, had failed to complete community service hours in a timely fashion or had missed repeated court hearings. He rarely stated in court the reason for the detentions.

Judge Dawson also often set conditions for probation that even a well-behaved teenager might have difficulty meeting, for example, ordering them to maintain a specific grade average or, as in Tanika’s case, to remain on house arrest for months in a row.

As delinquent acts go, Tanika’s offense was a minor one. One day in the spring of 2013, she briefly tangled with another girl outside a classroom.

The school fight was so trivial that the Department of Juvenile Services initially refused to pursue the complaint. No one was injured and Tanika had no history of delinquency. (The New York Times agreed to withhold the last names of the teenagers in this article because juvenile court records are confidential.)

But when the other girl’s mother insisted — her daughter’s hair weave had been ruined and she wanted $100 in compensation — the department turned the complaint over to the prosecutor, who filed a second-degree assault charge against Tanika.

When the case came to court, the Juvenile Services Department recommended that no action be taken. But when Tanika failed to show up for trial in September 2013, a writ was issued for her arrest. At a hearing in November, Judge Dawson detained her — Maryland law allows the detention of children who pose a flight risk — and set a trial date for December: Tanika was locked up for a month in the detention center.

She ended up pleading guilty. Judge Dawson ordered her to pay restitution and assigned 32 hours of community service. When, five months later, the hours were not completed and she arrived late to court, he doubled the hours and placed Tanika on house arrest, allowing her to leave home only for school or the county work program.

Her second detention at the Laurel center came after she visited a friend. The confinement, her mother, Rachelle, said, “took her summer away.”

“It just took a lot away from her,” Rachelle said. “She couldn’t go to church because of the monitor on her leg.”

If house arrest was difficult, the detention center, the juvenile equivalent of an adult jail, was even worse.

“It was miserable,” Tanika said. “It’s a place you don’t want to be.”

At first, Rachelle visited her daughter in detention — the two had never been separated before. But she eventually decided to stay away, because, she said, “when I did go, when I was leaving, she broke down crying real bad.”

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The New York Times

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