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Prince George's County juvenile judge reassigned

In a rare reshuffling of judicial assignments, the head judge in Prince George's County has replaced a controversial judge as head of the county's juvenile bench.

The longtime chief juvenile judge in Prince George's County, whose penchant for committing delinquent youths to institutions has drawn criticism from families, attorneys and Maryland's second-highest court, has been reassigned.

The transfer of Judge Herman C. Dawson was made public in an order issued this week by Judge Sheila R. Tillerson Adams, the county's administrative judge. Dawson had been judge-in-charge of the county's juvenile court since 2010.

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"I enjoyed my seven years as coordinating judge for juvenile and look forward to my new assignment," Dawson said in a statement.

Tia Lewis, a spokeswoman for the Prince George's County Circuit Court, said Dawson requested the change, which took effect Friday. Lewis said the reassignment was not connected to criticisms that have been levied against the judge.

"Judge Dawson has a genuine commitment to the young people of Prince George's County," Lewis said. "Granted, there were complaints. However, there were many more accolades."

The order came days after an article in The Baltimore Sun profiled a Columbia teenager whom Dawson committed to juvenile facilities for 891 days after the youth pleaded "involved" to the theft of a cell phone.

Dawson presided over the case for more than 21/2 years as he rejected repeated recommendations from Department of Juvenile Services officials, caseworkers and psychiatrists that the boy be sent home.

The teen, Michael, was released in October 2015 by another Prince George's County judge. Since then, the 17-year-old has dropped out of school and has been arrested again. A psychiatrist found that Michael suffered long-term emotional and mental damage as a result of his stay in the system.

Michael's mother, Keisha Hogan, has been sharply critical of Judge Dawson's handling of her son's case and appeared in a campaign advertisement against him. Upon learning of Dawson's reassignment, Hogan said she was "relieved that nobody has to relive this nightmare."

"I will never be able to undo the damage that he has created," Hogan said. "However, this is a small victory and a step in the right direction... Other families will be able to safely and appropriately rehabilitate their child instead of having to deal with the unsurmountable damage that they would have had to endure."

Dawson has said that he works hard to help the kids who come through his courtroom. He declined to comment on Michael's specific case, but told The Sun that his goal on the juvenile bench was to "make sure that each and every kid that comes in front of me gets the help that he or she needs so they can be productive members of society."

Dawson has been criticized for his tough-on-teens approach. Last year, the Maryland public defender's office dispatched an attorney from its juvenile protection division to Dawson's courtroom to observe his proceedings. Attorneys filed habeas corpus petitions against the judge that resulted in several juveniles being released from detentions that were found to be unlawful.

And the Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruled last year that Dawson had overstepped his discretion by sending a youth to an out-of-state placement.

Paul DeWolfe, the Maryland public defender, said his office looked forward to working with the new Prince George's County judge in charge of juvenile matters, Lawrence Hill.

DeWolfe said he hopes the change will result in fewer youths being detained in the county, which has had one of the state's highest detention rates.

"Our goal as always is to tenaciously represent our juvenile clients to reduce the unnecessary and harmful detention of children in Prince George's County," DeWolfe said.

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In his new assignment, Dawson will oversee a "flexible docket," where he will preside over cases on an as-needed basis and primarily handle family, civil and criminal cases. As a circuit judge, he earns $154,433 a year.

Court officials said it is unlikely he will hear juvenile cases in the new rotation.

The new assignment will last through September, according to the order. The recent order amends one issued in August 2015 that was supposed to last 24 months.

Evan Wilson, a former Prince George's County public defender who represented Michael, said despite Dawson's "frustrating" approach, he believes the judge thought he was acting in youths' best interest.

"I know for a fact that he truly believed in what he was doing — he really was passionate about juvenile matters," Wilson said.

Wilson said he thought rotating judges would improve objectivity in Prince George's County juvenile cases.

"Such a rotation would prevent the administration of juvenile justice from becoming a personal mission for any one judge which, to me, lends itself to personal and emotional decision-making, rather than unbiased and thoughtful decision-making," Wilson said.

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