Bernard Oczkowski was supposed to dispose of the toxic chemicals from his Houston, Texas metal-plating business properly, but he didn’t. Authorities found out.
Such infractions typically draw fines or incarceration, but in 2004 after Oczkowski was convicted of illegally dumping chromium, the judge sentenced him to drink a nasty mix of toxic sludge.
“If you had to taste the by-product of your own conduct…maybe you’d have second thoughts about ever, ever throwing something in a ditch, putting something down a drain or contributing in any way to polluting our waters,” the judge scolded.
Not every ruling stands up to scrutiny, but judges do have some flexibility when it comes to meting out punishment. That’s why sentences—even for the same crime—can differ from one jurisdiction to the next, according to the National Center for State Courts.
While most convicts serve time in jail or prison for crimes where incarceration is an option, in some cases, judges are thinking quite literally outside the box and issuing punishments intended to fit the crime.
Such tailored sentences can be beneficial for all involved, according to Michael Roth, a criminal justice professor at Sam Houston State University in Texas and whose book “An Eye for an Eye” chronicles the global history of crime and punishment. “Punishing everyone for the same crime is ludicrous,” because each perpetrator and situation is different, he says.
According to Roth, for some offenders, particularly younger ones, jail might actually be the worst choice. “Jail doesn’t really reform anyone,” he says. “It’s more a school for crime.”
Punishment with a Purpose
One judge in Ohio has become well known for imposing unusual sentences. Judge Michael Cicconetti of Painesville has, for example, ordered a woman to walk 30 miles after she stiffed a cab driver for a 30-mile trip. He told a drunk driver he could avoid jail if he spent time looking at car crash corpses.
“I typically use these creative alternative sentences for younger people who are more impressionable, at least somewhat remorseful and are usually first-time offenders,” Cicconetti said. “The philosophy behind it is that whatever punishment they choose, it’s going to prevent them from coming back to court on another charge.”
Instead of Incarceration: Peacemaking Circle, Thanksgiving Dinner, Funeral Costs
Unconventional punishments also have been imposed in more serious cases:
- In Chicago, a white teen initially charged with a hate crime for putting a noose around a black teen’s neck was sentenced to write an essay on lynching and to participate in a “peacemaking circle” with the victim and others. Matthew Herrmann, who turned 20 the day after his sentencing, also got probation after he pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of battery.
- In Ohio, a woman was ordered to cook Thanksgiving dinner for three police officers after a felony-assault conviction. Valerie Rodgers of Tuscarawas Township had driven past a police officer directing traffic, knocking him down. Her sentence: to prepare the meal for officers who were on leave or were otherwise unable to work.
- In Cincinnati, a drug dealer was instructed to pay the funeral costs of a 17-year-old customer who died after overdosing on fentanyl. Michael Chandler, 29, was also sentenced to almost 17 months in prison after the May 2017 distribution conviction.
Judge Looks to a Higher Power
Another fatal case involved an Oklahoma teen, Tyler Alred, who told police he was drinking before crashing into a tree in December 2011, killing his friend, John Luke Dum, 16. But Dum’s sister, Caitlin, who didn’t want Alred to serve any time, said, “We don’t need to see two lives wasted for a mistake.” Alred was directed to attend church for 10 years as part of his deferred sentence on the manslaughter conviction.
Alred, then 17, welcomed the unusual provision. “I do attend church regularly, as I did so before the sentencing,” he tells A&E Real Crime. “I think church is a positive influence anyways, so it wasn’t a problem to me.”
While Alred may not have minded, the ACLU of Oklahoma did and filed a complaint against District Judge Mike Norman on constitutional grounds. But the ACLU says it can’t disclose the outcome and Muskogee County District Attorney Orvil Loge says court records don’t reflect whether the church requirement was rescinded.
However, he supports the idea of alternative sentences “as long as they’re enforceable.” They are effective “when (offenders) come up with their own solution to pay for their own criminal debt,” he says, but could backfire if handed down from the bench. “If they don’t see the logic of it, it could breed resentment,” Loge says.
As for Oczkowski, he never did have to chug the unsavory cocktail after officials determined that drinking any amount of chromium was dangerous. Not only that, the judge was admonished by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.
Nevertheless, unorthodox punishments are appealing as a way to burnish the notion of justice served, says Keith Swisher, a judicial ethics expert at the University of Arizona’s College of Law.
“They can be promising but they have to be issued within limits,” Swisher says. “Assuming they’re within the law and they’re not degrading and they’re not unduly harsh, then they can be creative and more effective than the traditional lock-’em-up sentences.”