Dakota County Judge Michael Mayer’s path toward a career specializing in juvenile justice began with his own difficult upbringing on Chicago’s South Side.

After living with his mother, a single parent suffering from mental health issues, Mayer spent much of his childhood at military boarding schools in what he described as a crowded city struggling with racial tension. He said his experience later inspired him to want to make things better for other children.

“Very few kids are born bad,” Mayer said. “Usually something happens to them. I knew that early on.”

Last month, Mayer received the A.L. Carlisle Child Advocacy Award from the Coalition of Juvenile Justice (CJJ) at its annual conference in Washington, D.C. The CJJ is a national coalition of state advisory groups and others who work to prevent juveniles from becoming entangled in the court system.

Mayer calls his own strategy in handling juvenile cases an “asset-based approach,” in that he seeks to highlight something positive about each child. He also peppers them with questions: What are you reacting to? What’s going on in your life that’s making you do this?

“Nobody asks them those questions,” he said.

Carrie Wasley, youth program specialist for the state’s department of public safety, called Mayer’s approachability a critical tool when dealing with juveniles.

“He talks to them in their language and looks them in the eye when speaking to them,” she said.

Seeking alternatives

Well before he became a judge, Mayer was already entrenched in juvenile justice issues. In the roughly 20 years he practiced as an attorney at law firms in Eagan and South St. Paul, Mayer also served as a juvenile public defender. By 1995, he caught the attention of then-Gov. Arne Carlson, who appointed Mayer to the state’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee.

Mayer, still a member of the committee, was able to help convince legislators to pass a policy in 2009 that seeks to limit the justice system’s contact with and disproportionate effect on minority youth.

His advisory group also organized a forum on youth sentencing practices last year, advocating for a change to state law that would prohibit life without parole for juveniles. Mayer said the group is still working with legislators and county attorneys on a compromise, but said he thinks “almost everybody agrees that it should pass.”

Mayer applauds efforts in Dakota County to provide alternative means of handling cases of certain juvenile offenders, like Peer Court or targeted accountability programs. He also volunteers time to preside over family drug court hearings and is on the board of Tree House, an organization that helps at-risk youth and juveniles battling mental health and chemical dependency issues.

“Judge Mayer has been a strong advocate for juvenile justice throughout his career, not just here in Dakota County but across our state,” Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom said.