Creative sentencing often aims to shame

Judges differ, but some say punishment can be educational

December 30, 2005|By VINCENT J. SCHODOLSKI | VINCENT J. SCHODOLSKI,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

LOS ANGELES -- There is a song in Gilbert and Sullivan's light opera The Mikado in which the title character reveals that one of his goals is "to let the punishment fit the crime." It appears that a number of judges around the country share that objective.

In various jurisdictions and for various crimes, judges have ordered individuals to spend a night in the woods, act as a school crossing guard, stand on busy streets with signs around their necks proclaiming their misdeed and watch a film about violent neo-Nazis, American History X.

Some of the judges involved said they offered these alternative sentences as a way of making the criminals better understand the harm they caused or could have caused.

This month, an Arkansas woman who passed a stopped school bus and struck and killed a child was sentenced to spend one day a year in jail for 10 consecutive years, the date to coincide with the date on which the child died.

"The only reason for the continued use [of these sentences] is that we have had success," said Michael Cicconetti, a judge in Painesville, Ohio, who has handed out unusual sentences. "We don't see these people back. For some people jail means nothing. For them it's three hots and a cot."

Cicconetti recently handled a case in which a man was convicted of collecting money on street corners for disabled veterans but keeping it for himself.

Cicconetti said he struggled to figure out who was the victim in the crime and decided that it was the veterans who did not get the money. So he sentenced the man to visit veterans at nursing homes, taking them things to eat and spending time with them.

"Probation officers will take him around," Cicconetti said. "I'll buy the candy out of my own pocket."

James Cohen, a professor at Fordham University's law school, said there has been a trend toward "shaming" sentences for about 15 years, but he added that such punishment is a tradition.

"There is a long, long history of shaming people," Cohen said, noting the colonial practice of putting people in the stocks on village greens. Others pointed to the use of dunking stools in Elizabethan England.

He said such "punishment" sentences might have become more common because there has been a trend away from rehabilitation programs for criminals.

But some say it provides an educational experience that can be life-changing.

Tom Jacobs, a former Arizona assistant attorney general who is now retired, said he handed down such sentences when he was a family court judge:

"There is room for sentencing to be creative if it serves for rehabilitation, or educating the public."

Jacobs pointed out that a judge in Charlotte, N.C., sentenced a juvenile offender who had been part of a group that did $60,000 worth of damage to her school to wear a sign around her neck that read, "I am a juvenile criminal." She also had to help repair the damage.

Jacobs said he ordered several juveniles who committed violent crimes to watch the 1998 film American History X and to write a report on the movie.

The film deals with a neo-Nazi who is released from prison after serving a term for murder. He has decided to renounce his violent past and tries to stop his younger brother from falling into a life of racism and violence.

"They had to watch it to the very end," Jacobs said.

Not everyone supports these kinds of sentences.

"I don't necessarily approve of it," said Gino Di Vito, a retired appellate court judge in Illinois and the author of an annual state sentencing guide. "I don't think you change character that way."

He said courts tended to frown on humiliating sentences: "It is one thing to impose probation and as a condition make a person do something educational. That kind of sentence does not have any inherent humiliation."

But some sentences by judges are intended to cause shame.

Cicconetti recently ordered two teenagers who defaced a statue of baby Jesus stolen from a church nativity scene to parade down the street in Fairport Harbor, Ohio, with a donkey and to carry a sign apologizing for their offense. He was quoted in local news accounts as saying he aimed at bringing the two 19-year-olds a degree of public humiliation.

In an interview, Cicconetti said he started issuing alternative sentences a few years ago, beginning with people convicted of speeding in school crossing zones. He made them work as crossing guards to see firsthand what their actions placed in jeopardy.

"Not one of them has had another offense," Cicconetti said.

Another means of educating criminals is the "taste of their own medicine" sentence.

When Michelle Murray, 26, pleaded guilty to taking 35 kittens to two parks and abandoning them - leading to the deaths of nine of the kittens - Cicconetti sentenced her to spend a night in the woods without shelter.

The night was so cold, however, that Murray was taken back to her heated jail cell after about four hours.

Cicconetti said he is not sure whether he's a trend-setter in creative sentencing. Such sentences are issued by judges "almost every day," he said.

And Cicconetti pointed out that the shaming element in punishment had deep roots in the nation's history.

"You can go back to tarring and feathering," he said.

Vincent J. Schodolski writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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