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Shaming sentences aim to cut costs

| Saturday, May 11, 2013, 9:58 p.m.
Former state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin poses for a picture in handcuffs after her sentencing in May 2013. Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Lester G. Nauhaus ordered the photo taken and told Melvin to send the photo and an accompanying apology to all 500 judges in Pennsylvania. The Superior Court upheld the letter-writing, but ruled the letters didn't have to be on pictures of Melvin in handcuffs.

Evelyn Border will never forget the day she had to tell the world she was a thief.

Border, 60, and her daughter Tina Griekspoor, 39, made a deal with Bedford County prosecutors to sit on a street corner clutching posters that read, “I stole from a 9-year-old on her birthday! Don't steal or this could happen to you!” The humiliating ordeal let them avoid potential jail time for stealing $80 in gift cards from a girl at a Wal-Mart.

“I felt about an inch tall,” Border said. “I made a mess out of myself for the one mistake I did. And that's going to be held over my head for the rest of my life.”

Such shaming punishments are rare, but judges and attorneys the Tribune-Review interviewed said the unconventional sentences typically reserved for small-time, first-offense and white-collar thieves cut correctional institution costs and serve as a warning to would-be copycats.

Allegheny County Judge Lester G. Nauhaus said saving money was on his mind when he sentenced former State Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin this week for running a corrupt campaign to win a seat on the state Supreme Court. Nauhaus ordered Melvin, 57, of Marshall to send a photograph of herself in handcuffs to every judge in Pennsylvania. Nauhaus sentenced her to three years of house arrest, two years' probation, community service in a soup kitchen and to pay $55,000 in fines.

“I don't know how anyone can say this is any different from prison,” Nauhaus said on Tuesday. “The only difference is that taxpayers aren't paying for it.”

Border said jail might have been preferable to months of badgering from reporters around the globe and the dirty looks she still gets from neighbors.

But she learned a lesson, she said, and hasn't re-offended.

“If you can craft a sentence that will be effective in terms of rehabilitation and protecting the public and the defendant not offending again while doing it in a cost-effective way, it's a win,” Bedford County District Attorney William Higgins said.

In Ohio, brightly colored car license plates alert other drivers that a convicted DUI offender is on the road. In Maine, police in October published a website with the names of 21 men charged with hiring prostitutes. Allegheny County posts online a list of tax delinquent bars and restaurants whose owners haven't paid their Alcoholic Beverage Tax.

Nonviolent offenders, such as white-collar criminals who have embezzled money, usually don't need to be locked behind bars because they don't pose a threat to society, Higgins said. Housing an inmate in state prison is costly, too.

The state spent an average of $32,059 on every inmate behind bars, according to a 2011 state Auditor General report. Despite a drop in crime, the state's prison population has increased more than 40 percent in the past decade to 51,000 inmates as of March, according to the Department of Corrections, which has a budget of $1.86 billion.

Critics contend forcing someone to admit guilt in a public setting, particularly a defendant appealing a conviction, could violate their Fifth Amendment right barring self-incrimination.

But University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris said shaming sentences don't violate a person's rights because those sentenced already are convicted of a crime.

Offenders typically have little choice but to endure the humiliation because they're under a court order, he said. If they refuse, the judge could impose a harsher penalty.

“It's not torture because it doesn't involve pain,” Harris said. “It's humiliation, pure and simple.”

District Judge Richard G. King said it's important to understand that sentences reflect the opinion of the judge assigned to the case. The public often criticizes the court system for failing to prosecute people who hold positions of power, King said.

In reality, the courts have cracked down on high-status offenders in recent years, he said.

In November, former state Senate Democratic Leader Robert Mellow became the eighth Pennsylvania legislative leader to head to prison since 2009 for misusing public funds to get re-elected. Mellow received a 16-month prison sentence on top of hefty fines totaling more than $150,000.

In Melvin's case, “Justice was served,” King said. “Charges were filed, a hearing held and (Melvin) was found guilty.”

Christina Gallagher is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5637 or cgallagher@tribweb.com.

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