Judges' sentences: Read 'em and weep

Books: Howard judges are ordering defendants to read books and write reports to force them to reflect on their crimes.

March 07, 2000|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

When Howard County judges throw the book at defendants, they really mean it.

For the past few years, two District Court judges have been treating defendants like grade-school pupils, sentencing them to read books and write book reports.

Most of the assignments are aimed at drunken drivers. But the judges have occasionally ordered heroin addicts to read "The Corner," a tome about life on the streets in Baltimore, and one judge has sentenced thieves to read "Les Miserables," the classic novel about justice and injustice in 19th-century France.

The judges say the books force defendants to reflect on their crimes. Like most students, the defendants lament the extra homework, which when completed arrives at the District Courthouse in Ellicott City scrawled on notebook paper or even typed -- but not always in English. One judge recently received an essay in Vietnamese and is trying to find a translator.

"It was the pits," said Shirley V. Ridgeley, 61, of Ellicott City, who was sentenced last year to read the book "Under the Influence" and write an essay after being given probation before judgment in a driving while intoxicated case.

"I was being treated like a common criminal," she said. "The book itself, I didn't learn anything from it. It was dull. I read most of it. Some of it, I just scanned through."

Judge Louis A. Becker started ordering drunken drivers to read "Under the Influence," a book about the effects and dangers of alcohol, after hearing one of the authors speak a decade ago. He says it gives convicted drunken drivers insights into the downward spiral of alcoholism and explains the effect of the drug on the body.

Like any professor -- Becker teaches ethics at University of Baltimore School of Law -- he must ensure that his charges read the assignments.

The 55-year-old judge orders defendants to write 1,500-word essays.

He has a rubber stamp that emblazons the order to read "Under the Influence" on court documents, asking defendants to highlight "key points" and to relate them to "personal observations."

Becker adds the essays and books to the more traditional sentences, including probation, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and victim-impact panels, he says, to make offenders think about what they've done.

"I want to add an intellectual component to this," said Becker, sitting behind a desk covered in court files, law books and essays.

Becker has used that approach in other cases. He makes thieves write essays about "why is it illegal, immoral and unethical to steal from one's friends or former friends" or "why it is illegal, immoral and unethical to steal from one's employer."

He has also assigned portions of "The Corner" to heroin addicts and ordered them to write essays on the dangers of drug abuse. On a shelf near his bench, a stack of pamphlets, articles and brochures about marijuana await those convicted of possessing and using the drug. Those defendants are also assigned an essay.

But don't try to skirt the 1,500-word requirement by changing type faces or adding double spacing. And don't regurgitate the book. Becker says he counts and reads every word. Last week, he revoked the probation of Ridgeley, the woman who complained about her assignment, because the "essay contained little or no personal experience or observations." That means Ridgeley will have to appear before Becker again.

"This is a component of probation," Becker says flatly. "I don't think it's fair for someone to get away with writing 750 words when someone else writes the 1,500-word requirement."

Becker is not the only judge in Howard District Court to assign books and essays.

Judge James N. Vaughan has assigned "The Corner" to heroin addicts and forced thieves to read "Les Miserables," the novel that chronicles what happens to a man who steals bread for his niece. Though he is not a stickler for 1,500-word essays or for reading the actual book, Vaughan requires defendants to write something.

"I don't care if they read the book, the Cliff notes or watch the movie," Vaughan said. "I just want them to realize that life can be altered by breaking the law one time."

Though he hasn't assigned "Les Miserables" or "The Corner" in the past year or so, Vaughan says that doesn't mean he's given up on assigning books and reports.

"It just takes the right case," Vaughan says.

The judges' approach is not that unusual in the world of alternative sentencing. Across the country, judges have tried various tactics to hammer home their points. In Georgia, a man was sentenced to walk near the county courthouse wearing a sandwich board that proclaims "I AM A CONVICTED THIEF."

In Becker's courtroom last year, William P. Smith of Glen Burnie pleaded guilty to attempting to buy tools and then charging the cost to a former employer.

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