I keep thinking about something I saw in court a little while ago. The judge, a former sex crimes prosecutor with a temper that makes her unpopular among attorneys on both sides, decided to take a page out of Judge Judy’s playbook and dramatically castigate a defendant at sentencing.
“I’m very sorry, and I will not let it happen again,” the defendant said. The judge attacked before he could even finish, asking him why things were going be different this time. She threw his priors at him when he tried to explain. She rubbed in the fact he was on probation when it happened. She expressed her disbelief by rolling her eyes, and she made sarcastic remarks. His pleas fell on deaf ears. She beat him up, on the record and in a standing-room-only courtroom. He was mortified.
I imagine that what I saw was her version of tough love. She sentenced him leniently overall, so I think she was probably just hoping to scare him straight. I’m sure she thought her abuse, which she condescendingly heaped on this man who was a decade or more her senior, was for his own good. I wasn’t impressed.
I’ve seen her do things like that before, but I haven’t posted about it. The reason this case has stuck in my head is because of the crimes for which she was sentencing that poor man.
He was convicted of breaking into his own shed, which someone else was renting from him. The tenant quit paying and put a lock on the door. He destroyed the lock and entered without having gone through the appropriate legal channels. No one in the room, not even the prosecutor, seemed to dispute what happened.
Even worse, he was also on probation for theft of protected native plants, a class 4 felony. In Arizona, you see, it is a felony to knowingly remove or destroy any protected native plants from private or state land without the express consent of the landowner. Don’t believe me? Have a look at A.R.S. § 3-932. If the plant has a value greater than fifteen hundred dollars, it’s the same class of crime as nonresidential burglary (the charge in his other case) or aggravated assault causing temporary but substantial disfigurement. I think he dug up a cactus.
The judge wasted her anger. The guy’s a repeat offender, but look at the offenses. Didn’t she think for one second that it was ridiculous making an example out of a guy who took a cactus and tried to enter his own shed? He’s already at least a two-time felon. Although it’s for dumb reasons, employers probably don’t care. He’s going away for a relatively long time. Her scolding had no real effect.
I never like it when she goes off on defendants. At best, it plays to the worst in those who watch. It appeals to our desire to shame and ostracize others. I don’t believe for a second that it’s for their good; it’s because it makes us feel better about ourselves in some sick way.
If we lived in a place where laws and punishment had any rational relationship to morality or what offenders actually deserve, maybe there might be someplace in the courts system for something like what I saw. I still doubt it. Sadly, we don’t live in such a place.