Creative Justice: When Sentences Focus on Shame
June 8, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — You might think it hard to find a really creative outlet in Lake County, Ohio, but not for Judge Michael Cicconetti. He’s dedicated himself to reviving imaginative sentencing, with particular emphasis on shaming punishments, a style of justice popular in medieval times and certain kindergarten classrooms.
When reading the sentence Judge Cicconetti imposed on Victoria Bascom, it’s almost impossible not to feel a sense of relief and intrigue. Judge Cicconetti gave Bascom a choice: 60 days in jail or 30 miles on foot. Hey, he did offer her a choice.
Victoria Bascom’s crime? She was part of a group who stiffed a cab driver on a $100 fare. Not nice stuff, but a bit shy of murder. Bascom pled guilty, and while only the foolish would allow that fact to settle the issue of whether she was actually guilty, she copped a plea, so that issue is off the table.
Under closer inspection, the real question becomes why the hell a judge would think that 60 days in jail is necessary for a 19-year-old with no priors who “stole” her piece of a $100 cab fare?
Judge Cicconetti is likely aware that had he merely sentenced Bascom to a 30 mile walk, $100 restitution to the cab driver, $50 court costs, and three days of community service (not including the handcuffs and night in jail at the time of her arrest), the press may have greeted his nod to ancient justice with slight favor, slight negativity, or total indifference. After all, there is a certain poetic symmetry to making her walk the distance she tried to steal, even if one squints hard so as not to see that walking thirty miles isn’t quite the binary alternative to, say, money, which she is required to pay as well.
However, by giving Bascom the free will to choose between a bizarre punishment and 60 days in jail (again, a huge length of time for a fairly minor theft by a teenager), he became her savior from the gallows, and a shining star for a brief media cycle. What judge doesn’t love a little public adoration, if only until the next day when an Ohio cop kills someone.
Shaming punishments have always had a certain appeal to the simplistic and chronically unemployed, and this case is no different. Public reaction shows strong support for Judge Cicconetti’s painfully imaginative approach. After all, legalese is hard to understand, but any fool grasps “an eye for an eye.”
But this form of justice has a terrible tendency to slip down the slope to cruel and unusual punishment. Most judges recognize the potential for abuse and have moved away from alternate sentencing that wears the mask of rehabilitation over a face of retribution.
If the law has avoided the impropriety of imaginative sentences, why did Bascom’s attorney remain silent through her shame sentencing? Easy. She didn’t have one. Apparently, Judge Cicconetti’s quest to reshape the American criminal justice system extends to making legal representation during important criminal proceedings optional.
Judge “Creative” Cicconetti, despite the unfortunate nickname, seems all too ready for the limelight. He gladly tells each news outlet that his unorthodox approach gives first-time offenders a real second chance by allowing them to avoid jail by “electing” his amusing alternatives instead. Like a growing segment of America, the good judge recognizes that jail is rarely a positive influence on defendants or the communities to which prisoners return. That, of course, doesn’t necessarily mean sentences he cooks up in his fertile imagination are any better.
Granted, there is a certain charm to turning back the clock to a simpler time. Then again, we don’t live in a simple time. Judge Cicconetti made sure that Victoria Bascom will remember her crime, every painful mile of it, but everyone else will as well. With his creative sentence, he has tacitly added yet one additional penalty to Bascom’s sentence: notoriety. She avoided 60 days in jail, but she will forever be remembered as the woman made to walk 30 miles by a judge who was doing her a favor. Some favor.