Judge in Maryland Locks Up Youths and Rules Their Lives

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Judge in Maryland Locks Up Youths and Rules Their Lives

“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.

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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?”).

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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.

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3

2

1

Juvenile incarceration

Rate per 1,000

1975

1995

2011

Juvenile incarceration has declined since its peak in the 1990s because of lower crime rates and increased awareness of the negative affects of incarceration.

90

60

30

Arrests by age

Rate per 1,000

10

20

30

40

50

60

yrs. old

Most juveniles outgrow delinquent behavior. But studies suggest that incarceration can increase the chances that youths will be rearrested.

MARYLAND

80

PRINCE

GEORGE’S

60

40

20

Juvenile complaints

Rate per 1,000

’01

’05

’10

’14

In Maryland, juvenile complaints, an indicator of juvenile crime, have dropped.

MARYLAND

2.0

PRINCE

GEORGE’S

1.5

1.0

0.5

Juveniles committed

Rate per 1,000

’01

’05

’10

’14

But commitments to institutional settings in Prince George’s County rose around the time Judge Herman C. Dawson became the primary juvenile court judge, while decreasing statewide.

Note: Maryland data are for fiscal years.

Sources: Annie E. Casey Foundation; Bureau of Justice Statistics; Maryland Department of Juvenile Services

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.”

Pushing the Limits

Over the past year, the Maryland public defender’s office became concerned that Judge Dawson was testing the accepted limits of judicial discretion: In at least a dozen cases, he had committed juveniles to locked facilities for specific lengths of time — 18 months in one case, 12 months in several others.

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The commitments, the public defender’s office believed, were the equivalent of adult sentences and violated the spirit of Maryland juvenile law, which sets rehabilitation rather than punishment as the goal.

“I’ve practiced all over the state, and I’m aware of no other judge in the state of Maryland who issues these types of dispositions, not a one,” said Stephen Bergman, a supervising attorney in the state public defender’s juvenile protection division. “I think it’s clearly illegal.”

The public defender’s office was not the only agency unhappy about the commitment orders. The state Juvenile Services Department worried that the orders put strain on institutions that had limited bed space and were not set up to hold offenders for longer than the time it took to complete the six- to nine-month programs they offered.

Besides, said Eric Solomon, a spokesman for the department, it was in youths’ best interest to move them out of facilities once treatment goals had been met.

Mr. Bergman had unsuccessfully tried to get another Circuit Court judge in Prince George’s County to strike the language setting specific terms from Judge Dawson’s orders, and the public defender’s office was filing appeals. But the juveniles had remained locked up, in some cases long after the Juvenile Services Department recommended their release.

One of them, Jhenifer, a slight, dark-eyed girl with a sudden, effervescent smile, had become a personal mission for Mr. Bergman, who saw her as special — bright and motivated, her potential stymied by the juvenile system and Judge Dawson’s tough policies.

Jhenifer’s parents moved to the United States from Brazil when she was 3, finding an affordable house in Laurel where they could raise their two daughters. But the area was thick with drug dealing and gang activities, and Jhenifer found trouble hard to avoid.

At 13, she was sexually assaulted by a much older man while at a house in the neighborhood, an attack she told no one about for several years. She lost friends to shootings and to suicide. Filled with anger and surging with nervous energy, she began drinking and smoking marijuana. Sometimes, she would leave home for days at a time.

In 2011, Jhenifer, then 15, was standing on the street with friends, heavily intoxicated, when the police stopped to question the group. She tried to run but the officers tackled her, spraying Mace in her eye and leaving her badly bruised, she said.

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Recent Comments

andsoitgoes
5 days ago
The whole probation/supervision system is a waste of time, effort, and money in most cases. Abolish it. Intensify supervision efforts on…

E. C.
5 days ago
Maybe the detention is often not called for,must the judge CARES, and he is demanding that the kids do what it takes to succeed. If their…

Charles Almon
5 days ago
If these detention centers are contracted out, this sounds like a Law and Order "follow the money" episode.

See All Comments

In most states, juveniles are not entitled to jury trials. And when Jhenifer came to court, she pleaded guilty to a charge of resisting arrest. Judge Dawson’s order sent her to a residential treatment program in Ohio.

But when she emerged a year later she was, if anything, hardened by time spent in a tightly restricted setting, among girls who were as troubled — or in many cases, more troubled — than she was.

Returning to the same neighborhood and the same school, Jhenifer took up the same routines. And over Christmas in 2012, she was arrested and charged with involvement in a burglary and two robberies, along with a group of other teenagers and at least one adult. One of the robberies involved a BB gun.

No one was injured in the crimes, which netted a jacket and a small amount of cash. But Jhenifer pleaded guilty to an adult charge of armed robbery that was transferred to juvenile court.

For the next 10 months, she sat at a detention center, waiting for placement in a locked residential program. When, last December, she finally came before Judge Dawson for disposition of the case, he was not in a forgiving mood. In open court, with Jhenifer and her lawyer present, he committed her to a secure facility. Later, in his written order, he specified that she must be confined for “at least 18 months.”

But when Jhenifer completed the center’s six-to-nine-month program at the 14-bed J. DeWeese Carter Center in Chestertown — the state’s only secure residential lockup for girls — in only five months, and received higher scores for good behavior than any other girl there, the order began to seem more like a punishment than the rehabilitation called for by Maryland law.

In April, the Juvenile Services Department sent her back to court with a recommendation that she be released. She had shown great improvement at the center, the staff there said, and they thought she should go to college. She was helpful, cooking meals for other girls and keeping her room pin-neat. And she had goals: She wanted to be a medical examiner like Dr. Jan Garavaglia of the television show “Dr. G.”

But when Jhenifer arrived in court, Judge Dawson refused to hear the case, saying that she had been brought there in error.
“He was actually upset because I was in his courtroom,” Jhenifer, now 19, said in an interview. “He didn’t look at me, he didn’t speak to me, he didn’t give my parents time to speak.”

When Jhenifer’s case manager asked that she be given a home pass so that she could at least visit her family, Judge Dawson denied the request.

For another five months, Jhenifer remained at the center, locked in her room each night and confined during the day within the fenced grounds.

But in late September, as the legal challenges to his commitment orders were under review by the state’s Court of Special Appeals, Judge Dawson allowed a hearing on the case to go forward.

“I have some serious questions about whether you’ve been rehabilitated,” Judge Dawson told Jhenifer, as she stood next to Mr. Bergman at the defense table.

In the end, though, he agreed to let her return home — her parents had moved to another county to escape the bad influences on Jhenifer’s younger sister — assigning her 250 hours of community service that she recently completed.

“You’ve gotten a number of breaks, young lady,” he told her. “Sooner or later, your breaks are going to run out.”

‘I Am What I Am’

One day, when Judge Dawson was a law student at Howard University in the late 1970s, he saw a group of juvenile offenders being taken out of a van near the courthouse. The youths were chained together.

“It reminded me so much of slavery,” he said. “I decided I’d do whatever I can do to work with the kids and get them into a better setting.”

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If on the bench Judge Dawson is often severe, he can also show warmth and leniency. He asked for a round of applause for a girl who had done well at school. And he praised a boy who came to court in a suit.

Judge Dawson met his father “He was actually upset because I was in his courtroom,” Jhenifer, now 19, said in an interview. “He didn’t look at me, he didn’t speak to me, he didn’t give my parents time to speak.”

When Jhenifer’s case manager asked that she be given a home pass so that she could at least visit her family, Judge Dawson denied the request.

For another five months, Jhenifer remained at the center, locked in her room each night and confined during the day within the fenced grounds.

But in late September, as the legal challenges to his commitment orders were under review by the state’s Court of Special Appeals, Judge Dawson allowed a hearing on the case to go forward.

“I have some serious questions about whether you’ve been rehabilitated,” Judge Dawson told Jhenifer, as she stood next to Mr. Bergman at the defense table.

In the end, though, he agreed to let her return home — her parents had moved to another county to escape the bad influences on Jhenifer’s younger sister — assigning her 250 hours of community service that she recently completed.

“You’ve gotten a number of breaks, young lady,” he told her. “Sooner or later, your breaks are going to run out.”

‘I Am What I Am’

One day, when Judge Dawson was a law student at Howard University in the late 1970s, he saw a group of juvenile offenders being taken out of a van near the courthouse. The youths were chained together.

“It reminded me so much of slavery,” he said. “I decided I’d do whatever I can do to work with the kids and get them into a better setting.”

Continue reading the main story Continue reading the main story

Continue reading the main story

If on the bench Judge Dawson is often severe, he can also show warmth and leniency. He asked for a round of applause for a girl who had done well at school. And he praised a boy who came to court in a suit.

Judge Dawson met his father only once, when he was 5, and even then did not know it, only later learning the identity of the man who had bought him a candy bar at a country store.

So he worries, he said, about the many young offenders whose fathers are absent or in prison, and about parents who do not seem to care about their children’s educations.

“I can’t raise 1,700 kids a year,” he is fond of remarking.

Yet lately, Judge Dawson has had to confront the limits on his ability to direct and control young offenders’ lives.

In early October, the Maryland Court of Appeals ordered him to reconsider the set-term commitments he had ordered, noting that a previous appeals court ruling had found such dispositions unlawful. He has since either released the youths or revised the language of the orders to comply with the law.

And this fall, the Casey Foundation, taking note of the high detention rates, expanded its Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative to Prince George’s County. Mark Soler, executive director of the Center for Children’s Law and Policy in Washington, is leading the effort, which offers training and technical assistance to help jurisdictions reduce overreliance on locked detention and develop other ways of holding juveniles accountable. Mr. Soler and his staff have prepared an assessment of the county’s juvenile system, based on interviews with all parties, including Judge Dawson.

“We want judges to understand that the juvenile system is not the solution to all the problems of children and families,” Mr. Soler said.

Among other things, the initiative encourages the use of standardized measures that rate how likely a juvenile is to flee or commit another offense — measures that Mr. Soler said neither Judge Dawson nor prosecutors had relied on in making decisions, although they can help avoid locking up juveniles unnecessarily. Yet it is far from clear whether Judge Dawson will join the ranks of the judges who have moved away from routinely locking up young offenders.

Like most judges, he is not immune to community pressure: He said he receives letters and phone calls from crime victims and parents who urge him to be harder on young offenders.

After the appeals court issued its order in October, he began committing youths to locked settings but specifying that they could not be sent to the secure facilities available in Maryland, meaning they would go out of state and probably be incarcerated for longer. But he has now reversed most of those orders as well, he said, after public defenders and the Juvenile Services Department objected to them.

Asked if he believes some juveniles should be locked up for longer stretches, Judge Dawson said that for serious offenses like armed robbery and carjacking, they should.

“I’m not in good conscience, no matter what they say about me, going to put that child back in the community,” he said. At least one of the juveniles involved in the appeals court cases violated probation within a week of being released, he said.

“I am what I am,” Judge Dawson said. “If I don’t tell these kids to get out and get an education, for the most part, they are not getting it, and nobody seems to care.”

By | 2016-10-25T17:47:01+00:00 December 26th, 2014|News|0 Comments