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Summit Judge’s Life Reflections Drive Reforms

Image of a headshot of Judge David Hamilton

Akron Municipal Judge David Hamilton is using his inner-city upbringing to enact criminal justice reform from the bench.

Image of a headshot of Judge David Hamilton

Akron Municipal Judge David Hamilton is using his inner-city upbringing to enact criminal justice reform from the bench.

As the first African American man elected to the Summit County bench in 30 years, Akron Municipal Judge David Hamilton set out to improve his community and inspire others to do the same.

Then 2020 happened – the disruptions of the coronavirus pandemic and the public demonstrations nationwide for criminal justice reform.

“It’s been really tough for me because I’ve been wanting to go march and go to different cities, and make my voice heard,” Judge Hamilton said. “But as a judge, you can’t take a stance like that. You’re on top of a hill, looking down, and watching everything going on.”

As a former Summit County councilman and Akron city prosecutor, the 36-year-old is still adjusting to his advocacy limitations as a jurist. Equitable social representation is the main reason he pursued judicial office.

“There was a lack of diversity on the bench. Black males make up 7% of the population in Summit County, yet they make up over 40% of the jail population. The numbers don’t lie,” Judge Hamilton said.

Prior to his election, fellow Akron Municipal Judge Annalisa Williams was the only other Black jurist in the county.

Since 1968, seven African American judges have been elected in the county. The last Black man voted onto the bench was Williams’ father-in-law in 1989 – the late James Williams – a former Akron municipal and Summit County common pleas judge.

“I was really surprised when I heard that. It’s really sad, though, because if you’re a kid like me, and you grew up in Akron, you’ve never seen someone look like you on the bench,” Judge Hamilton said.

His personal and environmental awareness are the product of an upbringing full of obstacles. His mother routinely worked double shifts as a nurse to compensate for a lack of support from his father, he said. His inner-city Akron neighborhood was an epicenter for drug activity, specifically crack cocaine, an area in which he said “there was a raid every other day.”

Among his circle of 10 childhood friends, Judge Hamilton was one of two who graduated high school. Some of the others ended up in jail.

“We really had it pretty rough. Most of the people who come through the system come through what I came through,” he said.

One such example was his older brother, Kevin. Caught up in a life on the streets, he ended up in prison. The seeds of his path then as a 10-year-old toward the legal profession took root after he was “shook to [his] core” witnessing Kevin’s arrest.

Judge Hamilton’s inspiration to better understand the law – iconic fictional TV attorney Ben Matlock – was an unlikely one given his urban upbringing.

The famous mystery legal drama series “Matlock” was regular viewing at his grandmother’s home, in large part because of the poor reception from their TV antennas.

Even though he shared little in common with the character played by Andy Griffith, an elderly white man, he and the character both had an affinity for helping others.

“If I could do what Matlock did, maybe I could get my brother out of prison,” Judge Hamilton said.

Ultimately, Kevin “learned his lesson” and turned his life around – starting a family and his own business.

That rehabilitation inspired his younger brother to create an initiative predicated upon providing second chances.

It’s a court-sponsored program entitled Compassion, Opportunity, Mentoring, Purpose, Assistance, Survival and Stepping forward (COMPASS).

It targets young offenders – ages 18 to 26 – who are at high risk to reoffend, and provides them an alternative to jail – a tailored support system to address their individual issues and needs.

“There’s a lot of other people like my brother. If you give them the push and resources they need, they can be successful,” Judge Hamilton said.

While the process to arrive at a resolution in the justice system can be lengthy, another purpose for COMPASS, and his traditional docket, is to create more immediacy for those who need help, since participants lack stability and security.

They face joblessness, homelessness, trauma, other mental health problems, and general safety concerns.

“These kids have a sense of urgency for them. They don’t see another way out. They don’t see past tomorrow,” Judge Hamilton said. “This is my opportunity to change the projection and paradigm of the courts. This is how I’m giving them opportunities.”

Aside from aspiring to make COMPASS a nationwide model for other courts, he hopes to make an impact on the criminal justice reform by changing perceptions.

His judicial oath of impartiality may prevent him from protesting on the streets with his fellow citizens, but his role provides him a more influential opportunity to enact systemic change, starting within his courtroom.

“I want people to look at the justice system and think they’ll be judged fairly, not as a place that strictly sends people to jail,” Judge Hamilton said. “I want defendants to know there’s somebody who cares about them, that they’re going to get the help they need.”