Scrooge comes to Prince George’s County

Too often, the criminal justice system in the United States is plagued by inequities along racial identity. But what happens in a community where those in power look like the ones being punished?

In a Christmas Day opinion, Stephen Mercer details the long-lasting impact that the juvenile justice system can have on poor teenagers and young adults seeking to complete their retribution in the wealthiest African-American majority county in the nation.

Like a modern Scrooge, juvenile courts use their power and processes to assess costs and collect payment from young, poor adults who need money to buy food, clothing and perhaps a rare gift for family at Christmas. When Jane’s case was transferred to Prince George’s County, for example, Dawson assessed court costs without meaningful consideration of Jane’s ability to pay. Because Jane could not pay her costs by the end of her treatment, the court extended her probation. Jane was required to return to court on three occasions with partial payments to demonstrate her willingness to pay and then to continue to report for probation until the balance was paid. Further reviews were scheduled to monitor her progress.

Read more on The Washington Post

While the child’s race is not disclosed, based on conversations with Yvonne Robinson, Prince George’s Assistant State’s Attorney  responsible for hearing juvenile cases, it is reasonable to conclude that the child was either African American or Latino.

This article does several things. First, it reaffirms the notion that the criminal justice system is rooted in economic inequality. I would assert that racial inequality is merely the trunk of the tree.  A poor black child will not receive equitable treatment under a system presided by a black judge or a white judge.

Second, it challenges the notion of financial restitution as a means to remedy  a wrong doing. Even if crimes are more grievous, children of wealthy parents will have access to the resources to apologize if their affluenza acts up and the child may not learn a lesson at all. There are some studies that argue that it is poverty, itself, that “causes the most youth crime

Third, it shows the need for more  transparency and information about Judges running for election. Out of all of the elected offices, this may be the most difficult for voters to research and understand the long-term impact. Circuit Court Judges in Maryland are appointed to a one-year term then can run for (re-)election for a 15-year term. Who knew!

I first learned of Judge Herman Dawson through the New York Times article Judge in Maryland Locks Up Youths and Rules Their Lives. Dawson’s tough-love approach borders hazing and makes me wonder how efficient is it, if Prince George’s County has an estimated 35-40% juvenile recidivism rate.

Now that he has gained notoriety, I wonder  how he will fare in his 2016 re-election bid.



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