Relaxing between hearings recently, Judge James Ray leans back in his leather chair in Lucas County Juvenile Court and offers his telltale lopsided grin.
It's something you wouldn't necessarily expect from a man who has spent more than a quarter-century trying to figure out how to mend broken families.
After all, they are sent to him for judgment and repair: crack-addict moms; abused children; self-mutilating teens; rapists; drug addicts; murderers.
But Judge Ray this day is smiling, and then he leans forward again, hushing his voice for emphasis.
“You know where the real action is?” he said, in explaining his unwavering hopefulness to a visitor. “My guess is that you'd kill for your children. You'd die for your children. And there are a whole lot more parents like [that] than the ones who come through here.
“The good news is that many people are taking their parental responsibility very seriously.”
Judge Ray was chosen last week for a one-year term as president of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, a Reno, Nev.-based association of court officials established in 1937.
It's a perfect fit for a man who so fairly balances the reality of his daily cases with in-depth and long-term research - not to mention his personal experience - that suggests that even the most violent youngsters can change and be reclaimed, and even the most unraveled lives can be knitted back together.
“He's probably one of the better, if not the best, judges in the state,” said Geno Natalucci-Persichetti, director of the Ohio Department of Youth Services.
“He continuously tries to do the right things for the community. He thinks globally. He's an innovator,” Mr. Natalucci-Persichetti said. “He looks ahead. He looks beyond the courtroom.”
The unpaid position means plenty of traveling and speaking to lobbyists and legislators, possibly including Congress and the U.S. Department of Justice.
In doing so, Judge Ray hopes to tackle what he sees as a disheartening trend toward get-tough juvenile laws enacted in reaction to an increase in juvenile crime in the 1990s.
It's not that he wants to coddle bad kids; he's sent more youngsters than he'd like to count to juvenile lockup and to adult court for adult prison.
But placing kids behind closed doors is neither the only, nor the best, solution, said the former Lutheran minister.
Research and his own experience, Judge Ray said, suggest that placing moderately criminalized youth with the most serious offenders simply teaches the less serious offenders how to commit worse crimes.
“So how do handle them so that when the youths are released, the community is truly safer?” he asked.
Laws that cracked down against the worst youth offenders made it easier for judges to try youths as adults or pass harsher sentences on them as juveniles. But they also clump youths together by offense, sidestepping the individuality of each case.
“They thought the get-tough attitude was the way to address the ills of the community. But research shows us that it contributes to a higher rate of recidivism,” said Judge David Mitchell, executive director of the National Council.
Judge Ray would know. He's sat on the bench through more than a few trends - from the explosion of crack-addict teens soon after he took the bench in 1988, to the surge in violence that followed to the swelling of cases from schools and school officers in recent years.
He's seen plenty of juveniles succeed; he's also seen them “age out” of the system, only to be caught up in adult crime.
In practice, finding the best answer comes down to sifting through the facts and nuances of every single case: a youth's background and family situation, his or her mental health, the crime itself, the impact on the victim, and above all, the probability that treatment can change the youth for the better.
“It's really a debate between the offense and the offender,” Judge Ray said. “I go where the research says we should go. We should go toward treatment.”
That means casual conversations - as casual as you can in a courtroom - between himself and the youths facing him. He chats with them about school and their friends and gleans from them scraps of information that others might ignore.
Recently, he learned one tenacious troublemaker liked to draw. He was good at it too, the judge recalled.
He “sentenced” him to take classes at the Toledo Museum of Art.
But isn't that just too soft? He shakes his head.
“I don't want to say there aren't seriously disturbed individuals out there. There are,” he said. “They need to be taken out of circulation.”
“But we have gone too far, too far in painting all our children with the same broad brush. They are not our enemies.”