When is a lady not a lady?
When she’s drunk and disorderly in public.
To Judge Brenda Branch in Halifax County, N.C., the drunk and disruptive antics that brought 21-year-old Tonie Marie King to her courtroom recently certainly weren’t ladylike. Branch spoke to King about proper deportment, then imposed a unique sentence:
Write a two-page essay titled "How a Lady Should Behave in Public."
"Some people need pure punishment," Branch said in an interview Wednesday. "Others just need a little redirecting."
She added: "We don’t have a whole lot of resources out here, so I try to be creative."
King had pleaded guilty to being drunk and disruptive — and resisting a police officer — outside a convenience store. Police said she stole beer from the store Feb. 3, then struggled with and kicked an arresting officer.
As a magistrate’s order put it, King "did shout at and rudely insult others."
Branch, who is known for working with young offenders, sentenced King to 45 days in jail, suspended in lieu of a one-year supervised probation in which she must not possess or drink alcohol.
"She seemed articulate — I could tell she knew what she’d done wrong," Branch said. "I don’t think she’d ever been taught or challenged to think differently."
Branch said she’d imposed similar essay sentences in the past on youthful offenders with no serious criminal records. She calls them "my kids." Several wrote impressive papers, which she keeps on file in her office.
King had no serious criminal record, Branch said, so she believed the young woman could be "redirected," as the judge put it. "If we can nip this kind of behavior now, maybe she can get ahold of herself and not go out drinking and fussing and fighting again."
"I’m not expecting a college English paper," she said. "I just want her to think about what she did and how she can change."
Branch said she identifies with young offenders from working-class or blue-collar backgrounds in her largely rural county in northeastern North Carolina. She worked 20 years as a paper mill mechanic, wearing a hard hat and steel-toed boots, before earning undergraduate and law degrees in night school.
Asked how a lady should behave in public, Branch repeated what she told King in court:
"You don’t go out drinking and fighting and yelling," she said. "You dress well. You speak well. You show people respect, and you’ll earn respect. "