We know about an eye for an eye. But a ponytail for a ponytail? A Utah Judge recently ordered a 13-year-old girl to serve 30 days in detention and perform 276 hours of community service, after the girl had used scissors to cut off several locks of a three-year-old’s long, curly hair at a McDonald’s.
The judge offered to cut 150 hours of community service off the sentence if the girl’s mother, Valerie Bruno, cut off her daughter’s ponytail. Bruno opted for the cut, but has now reportedly filed a formal complaint against the judge. Under Utah state law, judges have discretion in imposing sanctions for youth that will change their behavior in a positive manner.
Some legal experts such as Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, have criticized these “shame punishments.” “This is part of a disturbing trend that has developed in the last 20 years,” Turley told the Associated Press regarding the Utah incident. “These are punishments that often appeal to the public and bring a type of instant gratification for the court.”
Such “shame punishments” have been increasing in American courts. One example includes a Texas judge giving an abusive father who had punished his stepson a choice of sleeping in a doghouse for 30 days rather than serving 30 days in jail. The father chose the doghouse so that he could go to work.
In Ohio, a municipal court judge ordered two teens who had broken into a church to go through town with a donkey and an accompanying sign saying, “Sorry for the Jackass Offense.” In 2005, an Ohio woman abandoned 35 kittens in two parks, resulting in the death of nine of the kittens. The judge gave the woman a choice between 90 days in jail for domestic animal abandonment, and 14 days in jail, 15 days under house arrest, monetary donations to the Humane Society, and one night alone in the woods. She chose the latter punishment and spent a night alone in the woods without food, water or entertainment. The same judge had previously punished high-school students who had vandalized school buses by making them throw a picnic for the grade-school students whose outing was canceled due to the vandalism. He also ordered a man who had hollered “pigs” at police officers to stand on a street corner next to a 350-pound pig holding a sign that said, “This is not a police officer.”
I like the concept of judges coming up with creative punishments to teach people a lesson. Many have criticized these sentences as being harsh and cruel, but I think that they can act as a sufficient deterrent to future crimes and negative behavior in certain cases. District attorneys and judges faced with overcrowded prisons and decreasing financial resources might find these sentences to be effective.
I’m not literally advocating an eye for an eye. If someone poked another person’s eye out by negligence or intentionally, the victim should not be able to give the other person a Three Stooges poke in the eye for retribution. That would be cruel and unusual punishment. Likewise, I don’t think that a convicted rapist should be forced to endure being raped by someone else.
However, I could see it working in DUI cases, where someone who is convicted of DUI should be mandated to attend victim impact panels, forced to visit and spend time with, let’s say five to 10 families who had loved ones killed or seriously injured by drunk drivers, and/or have to put a sign in his or her front lawn indicating that they were convicted for DUI. Too many times, DUI offenders get light punishments, such as 48 hours behind bars, a few weeks of house arrest, probation, a small fine, and litter pickup.
Alternative sentencing could also be appropriate in dealing with low-level, nonviolent offenders, such as shoplifters.
Sometimes it might be best if these shame punishments were used as alternatives instead of mandates. Judges could impose a sentence and then give the convicted person the option of decreasing their jail time by going through the shame punishment.
At any rate, we shouldn’t be splitting hairs about the Utah judge’s ponytail decision. He did the right thing.
Larry Atkins, a lawyer and a journalist, teaches journalism at Temple University and Arcadia University. He has written for the Baltimore Sun, Chicago Tribune, Dallas Morning News, Huffington Post, NPR, Philadelphia Inquirer, and others.