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March 28, 2008

¡Hasta luego, amigos ... unless you learn English!

This creative sentencing story from CNN, headlined "Judge: Learn English or go to jail," is sure to generate some creative sentencing debates among all my favorite commentors on a Friday.  Here are the basics: 

A judge known for creative sentencing has ordered three Spanish-speaking men to learn English or go to jail. The men, who faced prison for criminal conspiracy to commit robbery, can remain on parole if they learn to read and write English, earn their GEDs and get full-time jobs, Luzerne County Judge Peter Paul Olszewski Jr. said.

The men, Luis Reyes, Ricardo Dominguez and Rafael Guzman-Mateo, plus a fourth defendant, Kelvin Reyes-Rosario, all needed translators when they pleaded guilty Tuesday. "Do you think we are going to supply you with a translator all of your life?" the judge asked them.

The four, ranging in age from 17 to 22, were in a group that police said accosted two men on a street in May.  The two said they were asked if they had marijuana, told to empty their pockets, struck on the head, threatened with a gun and told to stay off the block.

Attorneys for the men said they were studying the legality of the ruling and had not decided whether to appeal. One of the attorneys, Ferris Webby, suggested that the ruling was good for his client, Guzman-Mateo. "My client is happy," Webby said. "I think it's going to help him."

The judge sentenced the four men to jail terms of four to 24 months. But he gave the three men, who already had served at least four months, immediate parole.... Olszewski ordered the three to return with their parole officers in a year and take an English test. "If they don't pass, they're going in for the 24 [months]," he said.

Olszewski is known for outside-the-box sentencing.  He has ordered young defendants who are school dropouts to finish school. He often orders defendants to get full-time employment. But he also has his staff coordinate with an employment agency to help them find the jobs.

As a brilliant colleague pointed out to me this morning, the headline to this story used by CNN is just another example of what I now call the "wedge-issue media" turning a positive story into an inflamatory one.  It seems to me that the CNN headline turns what is really a valuable and creative alternative sentence here, which is focused on education and rehabilitation, into a hot-button story that will generate attention for all the wrong reasons.  Then again, the headline did get my attention and led to this post, so maybe I am also part the "wedge-issue media" I have recently come to deplore.  Hmmm. 

March 28, 2008 at 08:11 AM | Permalink


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How is your headline any different?

Posted by: | Mar 28, 2008 9:24:35 AM

Having seen this story a few moments ago on CNN Headline News I did not think it was presented in an inflammatory manner, indeed, I thought it was framed and reported in a positive way (I concede to not having finished my first cup of tea but the two dogs visiting for spring break made sure I was awake). I'm curious if others who saw it think otherwise.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Mar 28, 2008 9:35:52 AM

The headline is unfortunate. What's really happening is these criminals are getting a break if they lean English. The headline is misleading, but I don't think it really inflammatory.

Posted by: federalist | Mar 28, 2008 2:31:47 PM

Exactly the type of creative sentencing that's needed. What federalist is missing is that for many "criminals," it's not very difficult to sit for a while in jail. What's hard is to get a job, go to school, support your family, pay your taxes, etc. Sentencing that supports those goals often contributes more toward public safety than prison, particularly for nonviolent offender. Far from criminals "getting a break," learning a second language is probably a more difficult sentence than a prison term.

Do you speak a second language, federalist, and if so did you learn it as quickly as these guys are required to do?

Personally I thought the headline was fine, and even accurate. If they'd falsely opined, as federalist does, that "criminals are getting a break," I might agree the headline was misleading.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Mar 29, 2008 8:15:59 AM

Unlike shaming punishments, I agree that this in some respects represents "the type of creative sentencing that's needed." It does seem unduly dependent on according wide discretion to the judge, however, but if this can be balanced with some degree of statutory determinacy...(i.e., creativity within constraints). And it bears some resemblance to David Wexler's (and others') notion of "therapeutic jurisprudence." Finally, it brings to mind if not resurrects the idea of "rehabilitation" in the lexical sense of "to restore or bring to a condition of health or useful and constructive activity."

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Mar 29, 2008 12:58:08 PM

Whatever, Grits. The bottom line is that they are getting a break. Whether that is right or wrong was not the point of my post. The headline on its face says that they have to go to jail or learn English--it does not presuppose that they are crimianls. The headline would have been more informative had it said, "Judge: Probation if you learn English".

In any event, I'd be pretty peeved if some people did this to me and got no time, and then I get to see them every day in my neighborhood. I'd probably kick the ever living crap out of them once I knew they didn't have the gun.

Posted by: federalist | Mar 30, 2008 3:11:36 PM

I agree with Professor Berman here - the headline did make the action of the judge seem negative (apparently it worked since federalist is ranting and raving about the judge giving the defendants a break without having knowledge about what sentence persons convicted of conspiracy to receive robbery normally receive) when the actual article shows that this judge seems to believe in rehabilitating people. Good for the judge - the article posted on Yahoo made it seem that the defense lawyers were a bit unsure about the constitutionality of the requirement to learn English, but their clients liked the outcome.

Good to see there are some judges who still believe in rehabilitation - and actually have the court work with people to help them out. That type of thing seems to be way more common among Juvenile judges - I wonder if this judge was previously a judge in the Pennsylvania juvenile court system.

Posted by: Zack | Mar 31, 2008 11:04:37 AM

I don't know about ranting and raving, but there are plenty of jurisdictions where this type of gun crime would merit serious time. Moreover, I don't think it's wrong to point out that the victims here may not be so pleased with this result. (How would any of you like to have someone who did this to you continue to live near you? How would you like to see the people that stuck a gun in your face walking around where you live?)

My original point, which seems to have been lost, was that the headline reads that they have to learn English or go to jail--there was nothing in the headline explaining why they were in that position.

Posted by: federalist | Mar 31, 2008 11:43:49 AM

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