SALT LAKE CITY – Unconventional sentences that shame defendants — such as walking through town with a humiliating sign or sleeping in a doghouse rather than in a jail — appear to be steadily increasing.
And this disturbing trend, according to one legal scholar, is turning state courts into circus shows.
The most recent example occurred in Utah when a 13-year-old girl went to court for cutting a 3-year-old girl's hair into a bob with dollar-store scissors, said Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington University.
"These are punishments that often appeal to the public and bring a type of instant gratification for the court," he said.
The teen and her 11-year-old friend were referred to court for the March incident involving the toddler and for harassing another girl in Colorado by telephone.
The judge agreed to cut back community service time if the mother of the teen chopped off her daughter's ponytail in court.
The mother has since filed a formal complaint, saying the judge at the May hearing intimidated her into the eye-for-an-eye penalty.
"I fail to see how the court reducing itself to the level of a 13-year-old teaches a moral let alone legal lesson," Turley said. "The court was doing precisely what the 13-year-old did to a child."
Turley, who has written extensively on how shaming undermines justice, said the sentence conveys the wrong message.
"The use of arbitrary and capricious authority is not what this girl needs to learn. The court is showing her he can do to her what she did to other people," Turley said.
KSL-TV initially reported the story after the teen's mother, Valerie Bruno, of Price, Utah, obtained audio of the juvenile court hearing and shared it with the reporter.
Bruno said she has filed a formal complaint against 7th District Juvenile Judge Scott Johansen with the Utah Judicial Conduct Commission.
The commission said it is barred from commenting on whether a complaint has been filed. It only becomes public if disciplinary action is taken against a judge.
Under state law, judges are given discretion in coming up with sanctions for youth that will change their behavior in a positive way.
Bruno told the Deseret News that she felt intimidated into following through with the judge's suggestion. The 11-year-old also was ordered to get her hair cut short but was allowed to go to a salon.
Bruno was put on the spot in court and ordered to cut her daughter's hair all the way "to the rubber band" after the victim's mother said Bruno had not sliced far enough.
Mindy Moss, mother of the toddler, told The Salt Lake Tribune she originally called police about the malicious haircut because she feared the girls' behavior could become more serious.
The older girls had apparently befriended the toddler while playing at a McDonald's, then used a pair of scissors purchased from a nearby dollar store to cut off several inches of her hair. KSL said surveillance video at the McDonald's helped identify the 13-year-old. She was ordered to serve 30 days in detention and to perform 276 hours of community service — which Johansen said he would reduce by 150 hours if the ponytail was cut in his courtroom.
"Not to make excuses for the girl but ... feeling intimidated by the court is a very common response," Turley said of the mother's complaint. "Many feel they are not in position to refuse these types of demands."
He said shame sentences also occur in adult courts and have judges "acting like little Caesars."
In a 2009 column for USA Today, Turley cited an abusive father in Texas given a choice of spending 30 days in jail or 30 nights sleeping in a doghouse. He chose the doghouse to be able to keep his job.
In an Ohio case, a municipal judge sentenced two teens found guilty of breaking into a church on Christmas Eve to march through town with a donkey and a sign reading, "Sorry for the Jackass Offense." The same judge later ordered a woman to be taken to a remote location to sleep outside for abandoning kittens in parks.
Turley said Texas Judge Ted Poe made people shovel manure to degrade them. Poe parlayed his "poetic justice" into a congressional seat, while Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio has faced complaints over orders that male inmates wear pink underwear.
"To some extent, we've seen the merging of law and entertainment in the last 10 years," Turley said, noting that citizens are being given a steady diet with television programs such as Judge Judy and Judge Brown.
He said he has seen no evidence that shame sentences have any more impact than conventional ones and thought society had "turned back the door" on such primitive sentences in the 18th century.
Turley said very few judges end up being disciplined.
"It's the obligation of every state bar to protect the integrity of the legal system," Turley said.
Utah state bar officials referred comment to the judicial conduct commission.