In September, an Alabama judge made national headlines when he tried his hand at providing a creative alternative to prison sentencing. While addressing the dozens of people in his courtroom who owed fines for various offense, Judge Marvin Wiggins gave them some options: pay your fines, go to jail, or give blood. Conveniently, there was a blood drive just outside the courthouse, and a receipt from the drive provided individuals with a $100 credit toward their fees — and no jail time.
Was Wiggins' ruling legal? Possibly not. Depending on the state legislature, most judges have flexibility when it comes to sentencing parameters for misdemeanors. But according to the New York Times, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed an ethics complaint against Wiggins for "a violation of bodily integrity." Ethics concerns aside, Wiggin's sentencing was unique in that it gave people agency over their decision and benefited the larger community. And for a poor individuals struggling to pay fines on a non-violent drug possession charge, the ruling could have been a relief.
In the aftermath of his ruling, Wiggins has faced blowback for whether his coerced blood drive was ethical, and it's brought the issue of creative sentencing back into the spotlight. Every year or so, some intrepid judge comes up with a hysterical or ludicrous punishment that makes headlines and is good for a chuckle. Every time, we collectively have a discussion of whether it's right to allow judges to work beyond the strict confines of the justice system.
No one is more familiar with this conversation than Michael Cicconetti, a judge from Ohio who has a seemingly endless supply of interesting sentences. Many of the individuals Cicconetti rules against are facing penalty for misdemeanors or non-violent offenses. Cicconetti's verdicts range from benevolent (like having a student who broke a window do yard work for the victim) to almost Biblical, such as when a woman convicted of assault with pepper spray was given the option of being sprayed with pepper spray for a reduced sentence. Cicconetti switched out the spray with a saline solution — but the woman didn't know that.
For his part, Cicconetti insists that his punishments are multi-faceted. Not only is he preventing further crowding in already strained prisons, but he's helping individuals reform. The judge cites one of his earlier rulings as a key example — an individual who passed a school bus in traffic had to ride with the driver for a day in order to understand the safety concerns involved with operating a bus. Another man who verbally harassed police officers and called them pigs had to stand on the side of the road with a real pig and a sign reading "this is not a police officer." According to Cicconetti, since starting his creative sentences, he rarely sees repeat offenders.
But not all prison alternatives have to involve public humiliation in order to be effective. In 2012, 17-year-old Tyler Alred pleaded guilty of manslaughter. Alred, who was intoxicated, crashed his vehicle, resulting in his friend's death. Because the victim's family did not want a harsh sentence, judge Mike Norman took another approach. Instead of prison time, Alred was sentenced to get his GED, graduate from welding school, take alcohol and drug tests for a year, be involved in victim's impact panels, and go to church. Some would argue this was a pretty substantial sentence designed to provide rehabilitation.
There are, of course, those who view these punishments as too light or frivolous. In Alred's case, had the victim's family not advocated for a light sentence, the family could have felt robbed of justice. But there are thousands of individuals jailed for non-violent offenses each year, who often do not receive access to rehabilitation, who could benefit from sentences such as this. As of 2013, the United States had 1.57 million citizens behind bars. With a number like that, can we really afford to scoff at out of the box thinking that prevents further incarceration?
These sentences won't fix our overburdened and incredibly flawed prison system, and in some cases — like the many judges who make individuals wear "idiot" signs — they go too far. They are not entirely in line with the idea of a blind and impartial justice system. But they do act as a small frontline defense, preventing first-time offenders from joining the legions of people overcrowding our prisons and proving a small dose of old fashioned rehabilitation.
If judges begin gearing their punishments less toward public humiliation and more toward public service, then the larger community can benefit from an alternative prison sentence as well. Although Wiggins might have raised some eyebrows about his effort to coerce blood donation, he just might be on to something — though let's not make American citizens literally pay for their crimes in blood.