If there’s one thing Americans love, other than the troubled-restaurant-turnaround stylings of Gordon Ramsay, it’s judges who impose “stunt” sentences on defendants. These sorts of stories crop up a couple of times per year, and they always seem to make the “lighter side” segment on the 10:00 news. The most recent example of this comes from Cleveland, where Judge Pinkey Carr sentenced a man named Richard Dameron, who threatened a police officer, to stand outside a police station wearing a sign that read “I apologize to Officer Simone and all police officers for being an idiot calling 911 threatening to kill you. I’m sorry and it will never happen again.” To give the sentence a personal touch, the judge hand-lettered the sign herself. These sorts of “Oh, snap!” sentences are undeniably funny. But are they actually legal? Do public humiliations like these constitute cruel and unusual punishments?
Legislatures generally give judges a lot of latitude to freestyle from the bench, as long as they can make the case that their funny punishments serve some sort of rehabilitative purpose. Federal courts have supported creative sentencing, too. In 2004’s United States v. Gementera, the Ninth Circuit ruled that a district court judge was well within his rights to sentence mail thief Shawn Gementera to, among other things, stand outside a postal facility wearing a sign that read “I stole mail; this is my punishment.” In his opinion, Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain (!) determined that “the district court imposed the condition for the stated and legitimate statutory purpose of rehabilitation and, to a lesser extent, for general deterrence and for the protection of the public.”
So these sentences, although unusual, are not seen to be unconstitutionally cruel. And they clearly stem from valid frustration with America’s imperfect criminal justice system, which sends convicted criminals into dangerously overcrowded prisons, fails to rehabilitate them, and then releases them back into society, where they are apt to offend again. It’s a frustrating cycle, and so you can understand why, rather than send an abusive father to prison, a judge might think it more effective to have him sleep in the same doghouse where he allegedly used to banish his son, or to sentence a burglar to have something valuable stolen from his house. Call it poetic justice. Call it common sense.
But as George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley has written, poetic justice rarely has anything to do with legal justice. The entire point of a code of laws is to move away from “common sense” justice and its attendant inconsistencies, and to professionalize the process by establishing a standardized list of crimes and punishments that’s valid in all jurisdictions. The judiciary’s role is to interpret these laws and pass judgment on behalf of the state; judges are theoretically elected or appointed based on their supremely nuanced understanding of these laws, not based on their ability to hand-letter punitive signage. This doesn’t mean that the system always works. But it’s meant to ensure that, at the very least, the system proceeds with a measure of fairness and dignity.
Theatrical, cornpone deviations from this standard undermine the judicial system. A sentencing hearing becomes less about the state passing judgment on a convicted criminal than an individual judge imposing her standards of right and wrong. Our criminal justice system might not work very well. But it ought to be fixed in the legislatures, not on an ad hoc basis by grandstanding judges who act as though they won their robes in a raffle. Public shaming is better suited for courtroom reality shows, which, indeed, is where one of stunt sentencing’s most famous practitioners—Judge Joe Brown—ended up. If that’s where Judge Pinkey Carr is bound, then I wish her well, and I hope she gets there soon, because her brand of homespun, alternative justice has no business in a real courtroom.