Fashion police: Judge tailors punishment that fits criminals to a T

9/7/2009
BY JANET ROMAKER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Robinson
Robinson

WAUSEON - I did the crime, I did the time, and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.

Such a reaction could crop up in Fulton County, where a no-nonsense judge is requiring some criminals to wear customized clothing in public: neon green shirts with large, black letters announcing, "I'm a thief."

To curb crime and provide a form of public punishment, Western District Court Judge Jeff Robinson recently introduced the "criminali-tees," and so far several convicted shoplifters, while performing community service, have worn the garish, attention-grabbing garments.

The shirts aren't designed to be a fashion statement, but rather a statement of fact, a wash-and-wear way to help weave criminals back into the social fabric.

Public punishment, the judge said, serves as a deterrent, particularly at a time when more people are being tempted to steal from others.

When the economy started to tank, the judge noticed "what appeared to be a huge uptake in the number of shoplifting cases occurring in the community."

During one proceeding, he asked a thief how she expected to get away with stealing stuff from a busy retail store, and she seemed rather proud to know security cameras can't spot shoplifters in a particular area, he said.

After that, he decided shoplifters needed to "suffer a little bit of humility." And, he said, a message needed to be sent to others that being a thief isn't something they want to get involved in.

The shirts, the judge said, are not worn with a sense of pride, and the message appears to be having its desired effect. "Shoplifting cases are down," he said, but he added that the shirts alone aren't the reason. Enforcement efforts have stepped up.

Judge Robinson's line of criminal wear isn't limited to thieves.

One man, for instance, was ordered to wear a T-shirt with "I starved my horses to death" on it, the judge said, but before the shirt was made, the offender - who was to wear the shirt while shoveling manure in the horse barns at the Fulton County Fairgrounds - was sent to prison on a felony charge.

Mr. Robinson, a judge since 2005, admits customized clothing for criminals isn't a new idea. A judge in Defiance County, who is now retired, "had a whole parcel of shirts for juveniles" to wear, he said.

Judge Robinson should be commended for saying he's had enough and doing something to discourage people from stealing, said Wayne Seely, former police chief in Wauseon and Sylvania Township who is now an associate professor of criminal justice at Owens Community College.

"I think it is quite an idea on the judge's part. He deals with these people every day. Every day."

Mr. Seely said he has heard of prisoners being ordered to wear specialized clothing on a large scale in Arizona, where Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the man known as America's toughest sheriff, dressed prisoners in pink underwear and re-established chain gangs in old-fashioned striped uniforms.

Closer to the Toledo area, in a community 30 miles northeast of Cleveland, Painesville Municipal Judge Michael Cicconetti has gained national and international attention as a result of his "creative justice," which includes offers to modify criminals' sentences if they wear certain costumes or apparel.

One time, the judge offered to reduce the sentence of a man who shot his Great Dane if he dressed up in a Safety Pup dog costume and visited elementary schools.

Another time, three men who pleaded guilty to soliciting sex were ordered by the judge to take turns wearing a bright yellow chicken suit outside the court while holding a sign that read, "No Chicken Ranch in Painesville." In exchange, the judge agreed to suspend a 30-day jail sentence. The sign and costume referred to the "World Famous Chicken Ranch," a legal prostitution house in Nevada.

In Judge Robinson's court, not all sentences handed down include an order to wear the T-shirts. But when a printed and public message would be an appropriate penalty, the clothing comes off the hanger and onto the offender.

Based on the law of averages, some offenders likely will try to skirt the shirt system.

That's why there are rules, said Mike Mann, probation officer and bailiff for Western District Court.

The shirts must be worn with "I'm a thief" visible, Mr. Mann said. In cold weather, parkas or sweatshirts cannot hide the message, he added.

Offenders, who are required to sign a release form and agree to return the clothing in good condition, mustn't allow friends or anyone else to wear the shirts (such as to a party as a prank).

Reaction from violators to the T-shirt requirement, which can cause public humiliation, has been predictable.

"Do I really have to wear this?" offenders ask. At least one shoplifter offered to pay a stiffer fine instead.

A convicted shoplifter who did court-ordered community service at the Open Door of Delta, an outreach center, didn't want to wear the shirt where she would be seen, Executive Director Cherie Mercer said.

"I told her this is the agreement with the court and she did it," she said. The offender was assigned to work in the high-traffic area of the complex's thrift store. If customers had reactions, they kept comments to themselves, Mrs. Mercer said.

Community response so far, Mr. Mann said, has been pretty positive, particularly from law enforcement officials.

"Police officers think it is a good idea," he said.

Mark Powers, a lawyer in Fulton County who represents clients who come before Judge Robinson, said he's aware of the shirts, but hasn't seen anyone wearing one in public. So far, none of his clients has been ordered to wear them, but "I am sure that will happen," he said.

And when it does, he'll be OK with it, even if his clients aren't.

But if the shirt fits …

"Quite frankly, the idea is to get people to not do this and if that is an effective way to not do that, it serves its purpose," Mr. Powers said.

It's sort of like the old days of pillory, Mr. Powers said, when people were punished by public humiliation, with heads and hands secured in a metal or wooden framework device. "If it keeps them from doing it again, it wasn't the worst thing to try to do."

Others, however, aren't quite sure what to make of the personalized clothing.

A couple of churches have been "kind of apprehensive" about the shirts, said Mr. Mann who links offenders with places where they can perform court-ordered community service.

The churches didn't flat out refuse, and would allow the shirt-wearing offenders on their properties if no other community-service opportunities were available, he said.

Most places, however, have been receptive, said Mr. Mann, who calls ahead to let agencies know the lawbreakers have been ordered to wear the shirts.

The shirts aren't just visible in Fulton County.

"I'm a thief" shirts have been worn by violators who performed community service in Lucas and Henry counties, further expanding the unusual penalty into the court of public opinion.

Contact Janet Romaker at:

jromaker@theblade.com

or 419-724-6006.