Many juvenile court judges often incarcerate youths, hoping it will teach disobedient teenagers a lesson and deter them from further transgressions. The New York Times says evidence has mounted that locking up juveniles, especially those who pose no risk to public safety, does more harm than good. Most juvenile offenders outgrow delinquent behavior. incarceration — the most costly alternative for taxpayers — appears to do little to prevent recidivism and may have 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 author of a study of delinquent youths. After decades when states grew more punitive in their approach to juvenile crime, locking up more youths, more than a dozen have revised statutes or regulations to avoid the overuse of incarceration.
Judges are not always quick to follow. Often the judges most resistant to change are those most determined to help troubled youths, experts say. The Times profiles Judge Herman Dawson of Prince George’s County, Md., adjoining Washington, D.C., “who brooks no excuses and involves himself deeply in the lives of the teenagers who come before him.” He subscribes to a “tough love” philosophy that venerates hard work, education and personal responsibility as antidotes to poverty, negative peer pressure, chaotic parenting and other forces that tip children into delinquency. His critics include defense lawyers, delinquency workers and parents of offenders, who say that in his zeal to reform youths he goes too far, acting not just as judge but also as prosecutor, probation officer and social worker.