Jail Time or an Odd Sentence? The Choice Is Yours
Judges are increasingly giving defendants the option of choosing alternative punishments that are unique to the crime — and rife for embarrassment.
With her slip-on Keds, hot pink socks, and spaghetti strap tank top, 18-year-old Victoria Bascom didn’t exactly look like she was ready for a workout — let alone one that would last 48 hours. And yet that’s exactly what she planned to do, as mandated by a court sentence.
In February 2015, the Ohio teenager was found guilty of theft for not paying a $100 cab fare for a 30-mile ride from Cleveland to Painesville. Luckily for Bascom, the judge appointed to her case had a creative way of meting out justice. Judge Michael Cicconetti offered Bascom the choice of spending 30 days in the slammer or walking 30 miles. She chose the latter.
With a water bottle in one hand and a distance tracking device strapped to her left ankle, Bascom set out to complete her odd punishment in June of that year. The judge even stopped by the Lake County Fairgrounds where she was walking to make sure she was putting in the work.
During those two days, Bascom clearly didn’t want to be there sweating in the harsh sun, and she passed the time making phone calls to friends as she walked. When she spoke with local newscasters who came to do a segment on her, she seemed bored and a little irked by the seemingly endless physical labor required of her. But even an annoyed teenager can realize how fortunate she is to get offered an alternative sentencing by a judge.
"I almost ended up getting jail time, so I guess I’m kind of lucky he gave me this option," Bascom told ABC News.
Odd sentences are becoming increasingly common across the United States as those in charge of doling out punishments look to find unique and personalized ways to make people pay for their crimes. From spending a night in the forest to wearing a charm bracelet with photos of one’s kids, these alternative punishments are a way for people to avoid jail time, community service, fines, or some combination thereof.
Cicconetti is one of several judges nationally who believes in odd sentencing as a means of dispensing punishments that fit the crime. Since 1993 he’s been doling out unorthodox sentences to Ohio defendants using an unlikely cadre of props that has included donkeys, pigs, blindfolds, embarrassing signs, manual lawn mowers, and pooper scoopers.
There was the time Cicconetti made a woman who abandoned 35 sickly kittens in the woods spend a night alone outdoors, by herself, without food, water, cell phone, flashlight, or any form of entertainment.
When an 18-year-old was caught stealing porn from a sex shop, the judge ordered him to sit outside the store with an American flag-printed blindfold tied over his eyes while holding a poster that read, “See no evil.”
And then there was the time Cicconetti ordered three men who were caught soliciting sex from an undercover police officer to take turns wearing a bright yellow chicken suit and holding a sign that read, “No Chicken Ranch in Painesville.”
‘’We started small,’’ the judge said in 2012, according to the Chicago Tribune. ‘’It was more out of frustration because after a year or two years, we were seeing the same people come back, with the same offenses. I thought, 'There has to be a better way to do this.’
“Some people, let's face it, you're never going to deter their conduct. It took me awhile to figure that out, too. I can't be the savior of all, because some people don't want to be saved.”
Those fortunate enough to get one of Cicconetti’s odd sentences are generally first-time offenders — and they always have the option of taking the more traditional punishment if they don’t want to carry out the judge’s more bizarre alternatives.
“I typically use these creative alternative sentences for younger people who are more impressionable [and] at least somewhat remorseful,” he told ABC News. “The philosophy behind it is that whatever punishment they choose, it's going to prevent them from coming back to court on another charge.”
Thanks in no small part to Cicconetti, judges around the country are increasingly handing out odd sentences. As a way to help people get off drugs, some judges have started ordering defendants to write their own obituaries and then read them in court. Others have ordered defendants to visit morgues to see the bodies of crash victims, or, in one case, to cook Thanksgiving dinner for police officers after knocking them over in traffic.
Pinkey Carr, a municipal judge in Cleveland, has credited Cicconetti for influencing her take on alternative punishments. In 2012, she famously gave a woman the option of serving jail time or standing on a street corner carrying a sign labeling her as an “idiot” after she drove on the sidewalk to avoid stopping behind a school bus.
“Even as a prosecutor, I was inspired by some of the sentences [Cicconetti] gave,” Carr said. “In this situation, because [the defendant] was so brazen, I wanted to make sure it was more than a slap on the wrist.”
Peter Miller, a judge in Putnam County, Florida, has dispensed odd sentences for more than 600 shoplifters over the last 12 years. He usually requires them to carry signs in front of the courthouse or the stores they’ve stolen from.
A lawyer who has defended many shoplifting defendants before Miller said that his clients “cringe” when offered the judge’s option to carry 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,” Assistant Public Defender Mack Brunton told the Los Angeles Times in 2007. “We don’t like it, but what he does is legal.”
Such punishments seem to work. Cicconetti said he’s seen very few repeat offenders since he began issuing his unorthodox sentences more than 20 years ago. Legal experts also see merit in creative justice cases. Not only do they shame offenders, but they save the public money by avoiding adding another inmate to often already overcrowded and underfunded jails.
After 26 years of dispensing odd sentences, Cicconetti announced in February that he’ll be retiring in 2019. While this might be a bummer to future first-time offenders in Lake County, Ohio, who might not get offered such lenient punishments, Cicconetti’s legacy will no doubt live on and inspire future judges seeking to lower recidivism rates in their courts.
In this vein, here are 12 of the oddest sentences that judges across the country have dispensed in recent years.
Crime: Building code violations on dozens of rental properties
Punishment: House arrest in one of the properties
In 2008, a landlord who owned 41 properties in Cleveland was forced to spend six months living in one of them under house arrest after failing to fix and clean up his units per a court order. His movements were recorded by security cameras and he was only allowed to leave to attend church or special family events, or to fix issues on his other properties.
Crime: 13-year-old girl cuts off 3-year-old’s hair
Punishment: 13-year-old girl gets her ponytail cut off
An eye for an eye, a pony for a pony. In 2012, a Colorado juvenile judge offered the mother of a young defendant the chance to reduce her daughter’s sentence if she cut off the 13-year-old’s ponytail there in the courtroom. The teen had befriended a 3-year-old at a McDonald’s and then cut the little girl’s hair off with a pair of scissors.
Crime: Vandalizing a nativity scene
Punishment: March through town with a donkey and an embarrassing sign
In 2003, Cicconetti ordered a couple that wrote “666” on a baby Jesus statue on Christmas eve to spend a day leading a donkey through town with a sign on it that said, “Sorry for the jackass offense.” They were also ordered to replace the statue, spend 45 days in jail, and undergo drug and alcohol treatment.
Punishment: Watch Bambi once a month
In 2016, a poacher in Missouri was caught illegally killing deer, taking only their heads and antlers and leaving the remainders of their bodies to rot. David Berry Jr. was sentenced to a year in jail and required to watch Bambi, the 1942 animated classic in which the young fawn’s mother is shot and killed by hunters once a month for the duration of his stay.
Crime: Fighting with one’s wife after forgetting her birthday
Punishment: Buy said wife flowers and take her out to dinner
A judge in Broward County, Florida ordered a man who had gotten into a violent dispute with his wife to take her out for a romantic evening instead of slapping him with a domestic violence charge. “He’s going to get a card, he’s going to get flowers, and then he’s going to go home and pick up his wife, get dressed, take her to Red Lobster,” Judge John Hurley said, according to CNN. “And then, after they have Red Lobster, they’re going to go bowling.” The judge also ordered the couple to undergo counseling.
Crime: Stealing from a church
Punishment: Make an apology sign out of pennies
A woman who stole change from a church’s donation jug was ordered in 2008 by Cicconetti to spell out the sentence, “I stole coins from this church,” entirely in pennies and to apologize to each worshipper as they entered or left the building. She also received jail time and the opportunity to shorten her sentence from 30 to 10 days by completing a drug treatment program.
Crime: Starving two horses
Punishment: 30 days in jail and three days of eating only bread and water
In 2004, a woman in Houston, Texas, was given a sentence that included 30 days in jail and three days of being served only bread and water after she starved and neglected two horses tied outside of her mobile home. The judge also ordered enlarged photos of the famished horses to be posted on the walls of the woman’s cell.
Crime: Using fraud to obtain illegal drugs
Punishment: Wear a charm bracelet bearing pictures of her children
In April 2018, an Idaho woman fraudulently obtained illegal drugs from the hospital she worked at was given three years of probation and was required to wear, at all times, a charm bracelet bearing photos of her children in a bid to deter her from using drugs or alcohol.
Crime: Shouting at a police officer
Punishment: Stand with a pig and carry a sign
Another creative punishment doled out by Cicconetti included ordering a man who yelled “Pigs!” at a police officer by opening the back passenger’s seat door of a moving vehicle to stand on a street corner with a live pig. The 19-year-old was also forced to carry a sign that read, “This is not a police officer.”
Crime: Felony statutory rape
Punishment: No sex before marriage
A 19-year-old who pleaded guilty to having sex with a 14-year-old and then later bragged to investigators about having had 34 sexual partners, was sentenced by an Idaho judge to remain celibate until marriage. The no-sex policy, which also involved attending a one-year program and serving probation time, was offered in lieu of five to 15 years in prison.
Crime: Mowing an obscene message in a high school’s lawn
Punishment: Mow the high school’s practice lawn with a manual mower
In 2018, Judge Cicconetti gave a 19-year-old who was caught mowing a handful of obscenities into an Ohio high school’s lawn the option of 10 days in jail or mowing the school’s practice lawn with “a good old-fashioned lawn mower.” The teen had carved, among other things, the shape of a penis and the phrase, “Fuck you.”
Crime: Noise violations
Punishment: Listen to bad music
Beginning in 2005, a judge in Colorado started punishing noise violators by forcing them to listen to one hour of music they didn’t like. Top on the judge’s playlist were songs by Barry Manilow, Barney the Dinosaur, and “Only You” by the 1950s vocal group, The Platters.