A 42-year-old Parkville man who was illiterate faced a petty theft charge. He got probation before judgment, which allows him to clear his record, but only if he tries to learn how to read.
A 19-year-old from Halethorpe told the judge he couldn't work as a roofer anymore because of an ankle injury. He also got probation before judgment, on a marijuana charge, on the condition that he get vocational training to find another line of work.
This unusual brand of justice is being dispensed by Howard County District Judge Lenore R. Gelfman, who was appointed to the bench in August 1989.
She also has ordered a young man who was "floundering" to go back to a community college, and made several dropouts get high school equivalency diplomas as conditions of their probation.
"I think the best way to avoid repeat offenses, when it involves people who are illiterate or high school dropouts, is to require them to receive a formal education or training as a condition of their probation," said the 42-year-old judge.
Many prosecutors and defense attorneys agree.
"It is a good policy for some petty offenses," said prosecutor Walter F. Closson, a former music teacher. "I think you can tie some crime to a poor education, which results in a lack of self-esteem. Without a high school degree or equivalency, their income generally is not much and their work prospects are not good."
Gail Clark, an assistant public defender, praised Judge Gelfman for making sentencing something more than a routine.
"She listens to what people are saying and questions them about their prospects," Ms. Clark said. "You feel she is tuning in to what their real situation is -- so it is not just the standard probation hearing. She tries to do something that will make a difference."
Ms. Clark represented the man who was ordered to attend literacy class. He had dropped out of school in the eighth grade and told the judge that as a youth he was "in special education classes and probably didn't really have more than a fourth-grade education."
Judge Gelfman assured the man that she would not hold it against him if he did not succeed in learning how to read -- which eased his mind.
"She wanted him to make the effort," Ms. Clark said. "Not being able to read or write had been a burden he carried around, and the only thing he worried about was whether he would be successful or not."
The public defender also represented the unemployed roofer, and she said he left the courtroom a much happier man.
"He had always hoped he would get retraining," Ms. Clark said. "When he went before the judge, he was worried about what might happen to him. He left the courtroom with some hope because heavy labor was now foreclosed to him because of his ankle injury, and retraining was key to his job future."
If the two complete their educational requirements, Judge Gelfman said, she probably will make the remainder of their probation unsupervised.
"Hopefully, they will have some skill to do something worthwhile," she said.
When Judge Gelfman began imposing educational requirements as terms of probation five months ago, it caught prosecutor Robert G. Voss "a little off guard."
"Afterward, it made sense," he said. "I have seen only one defendant turn it down. Most are anxious to take it because they say they needed an incentive. They realize they are stuck in a non-paying situation and this is a way to rise above their present situation."