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May 23, 2011

"Judge orders felons to write 5-page essays"

The title of this post is the sub-heading of this alternative sentencing article from the Toledo Blade, which carries the main headline "For some offenders, sentences are just that."  Here are excerpts from the piece:

Lying among the volumes of paper piled on Judge Stacy Cook’s desk was a handwritten report from a young man she last saw standing at the defendant’s table in her Lucas County Common Pleas courtroom.  “In today’s society, guns and drugs have put most teens at risk,” the paper began. “The number of teens with drugs and guns has risen rapidly. People are wondering why … “

The report isn’t the answer to the nation’s problem of teen violence and drug use — it isn’t supposed to be.  But for the 22-year-old man who was required to write five pages on “youths at risk with drugs/alcohol and guns,” the paper was a way to force him to take a look at his choices.

Since taking the bench in 2007, Judge Cook has seen hundreds of felony defendants.  Some she sends to prison; for others she orders time on community control.  And still others get probation with a few added requirements — such as a five-page paper on teen violence, or a report on closed-head injuries.

It’s a practice not seen elsewhere in the courthouse.  But in Judge Cook’s fourth-floor courtroom, it’s a method she believes is working.  “From years of practicing law, I felt that there was a huge missing link in getting people to understand what they did wrong, not just in committing the crime but where there was error in judgment,” Judge Cook said. “I’ve always thought people needed to understand that what they did sent out this ripple effect.”

The judge said that ordering papers is more than just busy work.  It’s an attempt to make defendants think of how their crimes affect others — in essence, putting their actions back into their lap.  But even more important, it’s an attempt to change a lifestyle.

Judge Cook has ordered as many as 30 defendants to write reports on closed-head injuries and several others to document statistics of guns and violence among youth....

But does it work?  Judge Cook said she can only gauge success on the number of times those on community control have violations.  In particular she looks for those who return to her court after committing a new crime or because of continued drug use.  And while she has no statistics and can’t say for sure, the judge said after a few reflective moments that the numbers for what she would consider serious violations seem to be low.

Lawyer Richard Hasbrook, the public defender in Judge Cook’s courtroom, agrees. He said that across the state, courts are trying new things in sentencing to deal with Ohio’s overcrowded prisons. “I see it as just another tool to bring discipline and structure to otherwise undisciplined and unstructured lives,” he said.

Morris Jenkins, chairman of the criminal justice and social work department at the University of Toledo, has researched alternative sentencing and restorative justice.  He said that by adding requirements to offenders’ probations, the court is making individuals more accountable.

Mr. Jenkins said he has not studied the effects of written papers on recidivism, but added that he’d be willing to do so.  But of the research he has conducted, much of which originates in juvenile court, he has seen that alternative sentences have proven effective. “I’m glad that we have a judge with foresight and courage to do [alternative sentencing] with adult offenders,” he said. “A lot of individuals deserve second chances. Not everyone but a lot of people do, and by making them do something like a paper, I guarantee they’ll remember it later.”

May 23, 2011 at 05:38 PM | Permalink

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Posted by: Bill Otis | May 24, 2011 11:01:13 AM


The average felon knows well the consequences of his actions. He simply doesn't care-that is one of the hallmarks of the anti-social personality.

Posted by: mjs | May 24, 2011 11:31:26 AM

mjs --

Let me ask you a question I often think about, but even after all these years, haven't figured out:

The defense bar goes on at length about how if we just give the defendant more education, job opportunities, etc., things will be fine, and he'll turn into a law-abiding, productive citizen.

Do they actually not understand that it's the client's own attitude and will that, far more than anything else, tells the tale? Do they really think that training or counseling or (as here) writing a five-page paper is the key to getting straight? Or do they just hope that they can sell that line to the judge, the public, the legislature, etc.?

I'm all for giving inmates a set of marketable skills, mind you. Indeed, I doubt I'd let them out until they had it. But I don't see how any realistic adult could think that the most important thing is the set of skills, rather than the set of morals. And the government cannot force anyone to change his morals. The inmate has to do that for himself.

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 24, 2011 11:52:49 AM

training and counseling is not the key, just as a change in morals is not the key. Rather, training and counseling is part of the key. If you are who you say you are, you certainly are smart enough to know that.

Posted by: = | May 24, 2011 12:19:32 PM

Few want to believe that for most-character and personality are formed early on.

Change is difficult for all of us-criminals are no exception.

As a group, offenders suffer from a lack of discipline and an inability to delay gratification.

Even those who want to change their lives will find it difficult to complete a job-training program or start a career from an entry-level position making $9 an hour due to those deficits. Those who have no intention of "going straight", will laugh at an opportunity to make minimum wage. The resolute criminal views those who work 9-5 jobs and pay taxes as chumps.

Posted by: mjs | May 24, 2011 12:24:21 PM

= --

"...training and counseling is not the key, just as a change in morals is not the key."

Do you really believe that?

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 24, 2011 12:34:52 PM

I believe what I wrote. No need to parse it, it was quite short.

Posted by: = | May 24, 2011 12:37:13 PM

Some great posts by all.

I have seen inmates given nearly every tool possible to "rehabilitate." Legitimate counseling programs, education, vocational, soft skills, etc.

And, I have seen a great percentage of the inmates come into class at 8AM and put their heads right down on the desk and try to nap because they are "too tired" to work.

In NY, inmates are programmed for two of three blocks per day (roughly 2 1/2 hours each. That is a five hour day of school, counseling, and/or porter, etc. Not exactly a killer schedule. Keep in mind that they do not have to cook for a family, get kids to school, pay bills, fight traffic, etc. Yet an 8 o'clock GED class is too early? I was able to make an inmate stay awake, sit up, and at least appear to be listening. I could not make him care or have a desire to improve himself.

Humpty Dumpty was broken years ago as a child in the home. Expecting the prison system to change a lifetime of self-destructive attitudes and put it together again it is unrealistic.

And the prison system's lack of rehabilitative value has little to do with the system or its employees and has almost everything to do with the damaged goods it receives.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | May 25, 2011 12:35:26 PM

"I was able to make an inmate stay awake, sit up, and at least appear to be listening. I could not make him care or have a desire to improve himself."

TarlsQtr nails it in two sentences.

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 26, 2011 1:14:07 AM

I doubt writing an essay is gonna make any bad guy a better man..

Posted by: Gagner Sur le Net | May 26, 2011 2:14:07 AM

"I was able to make an inmate stay awake, sit up, and at least appear to be listening. I could not make him care or have a desire to improve himself."

Interesting - not one? Perhaps your experience is not an accurate representation of all prisoners in prisons, including some who are at the high security facilities?

how else do you explain this: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704740604576301404105030510.html

Or this

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/09/us/09bar.html

Or this: http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/2008/0711/p01s02-usgn.html

And there are many, many more similar stories, as most of the world has heard of. I'd encourage you to inform yourself about such prisoners if you do not see it around you in your work.

"And the prison system's lack of rehabilitative value has little to do with the system or its employees and has almost everything to do with the damaged goods it receives." - Well, according to many courts in the land, and a growing majority of people who have lived and worked in prisons, either as state employees or prisoners (or both), you are pretty much alone in that (very erroneous) perception.

Posted by: anonymous | May 27, 2011 1:09:32 AM

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