Better than jail time? Some judges try unusual sentences
Reshane Lewis wasn’t happy as she paraded outside the courthouse here, sweat dripping from her face, and carried a sign reading: “I stole from a local store.”
The sun beat down. For two hours, Lewis carried the red and white sign back and forth, her probation officer watching. Passers-by and court employees mostly ignored her.
“It is better than going to jail, but it’s not fair,” said Lewis, who says she was arrested in December at a Wal-Mart for acting as lookout while a friend took children’s clothes.
Putnam County Judge Peter Miller has sentenced Lewis and more than 600 other people to carry signs at the courthouse or outside victimized stores over the last dozen years, part of his standard punishment for shoplifting.
He is one of several judges nationally who believe unusual sentences, usually some form of public penitence, work. The company that administers Putnam County’s probation system says that only three of Miller’s sign carriers have repeated their offense.
“If you see someone marching up and down in front of a store, you may think twice before stealing. I’m not going to say it is going to prevent it, but it will stop the one who did it from doing it again,” said the judge, who gives the thieves a choice of a 30- or 60-day jail sentence or two hours of humiliation. They also must pay a $294 fine, perform 25 hours of community service and complete six months’ probation.
Miller is not alone in his creative sentencing:
Some teens who yelled “Pigs” at police officers in Painesville, Ohio, were forced by Municipal Court Judge Michael A. Cicconetti to stand on a street corner with a pig and a sign reading, “This is not a police officer.” He also made three men arrested in a prostitution sting wear chicken suits near the area where they were arrested and carry a sign that referred to a notorious brothel: “There is no chicken ranch in Painesville.”
Judge Larry Standley in Harris County, Texas, ordered a man who had slapped his own wife to take yoga classes to help him lessen his anger.
A San Francisco judge sentenced a man convicted of mail fraud to stand outside a post office with a sign that read: “I stole mail. This is my punishment.”
Assistant Public Defender Mack Brunton, who represents many shoplifting defendants before Miller, said, “We don’t like it, but what he does is legal.”
Brunton added: “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that this is his way to encourage them not to do it again. It seems to work fairly well.” He said defendants “cringe” when offered Miller’s option of carrying a sign.
“They hate it. They would rather jump off a cliff than carry the sign. They would pay more money. They would swim the English Channel,” he said.
Lewis, who carried the sign after the Wal-Mart arrest, said that after paying fines, court fees and the cost of probation she was out $500. She sees Miller’s demand that she march as piling on. “This is just a humiliating stunt,” said Lewis, a 23-year-old condo cleaner.
Sentences using public humiliation aren’t new -- in colonial times, lawbreakers were forced to sit in stocks. Neighbors would taunt them and throw rotten vegetables or even excrement.
William V. Dunlap, a professor at the Quinnipiac University School of Law in Connecticut, has looked into unusual sentences and doesn’t know of any studies showing whether jail or public embarrassment is a stronger deterrence. Since the cases are misdemeanors, the sentences are seldom challenged in higher courts, Dunlap said.
“They don’t amount to cruel and unusual punishment. They are unusual, but most of them as not as cruel as sending someone to jail or prison,” he said.
In his 22 years on the bench in this town 50 miles south of Jacksonville, Miller has seen some strange thefts. One of the most unusual was a man who left a store with a kielbasa in his pants and a bottle of Pepto-Bismol in his pocket. The man explained that he stole the sausage because he was hungry and the stomach medication because kielbasa gave him heartburn.
Miller says most thieves lift items they don’t really need -- DVDs, video games, clothes, cosmetics -- and he has little sympathy for them.
“I don’t like having to pay for a thief taking something, and I don’t think anybody else does either,” said Miller, 63. “The rest of us end up paying for what they are stealing.”