Get creative about crime

16th December 2005 at 00:00
I grow ever more fascinated by Judge Cicconetti, of Painesville, Ohio. He is the judge who - under some American permission irreproducible in our fretful land - amuses himself by devising interesting punishments for everyday crimes. A woman who abandoned 35 kittens in a wood was made to spend several hours out there herself, in the same freezing temperatures, to see what it felt like. A man who became abusive and called a police officer a pig was made to stand for two hours in a pen in the town centre alongside a hog, holding a placard with an arrow pointing at it saying "THIS IS NOT A POLICE OFFICER". A man found with an illegal gun was made to go and look at dead bodies in a mortuary. Teenagers who defaced a nativity scene paraded through town with a donkey wearing a sign saying "SORRY FOR THE JACKASS OFFENCE". Noisy neighbours got sentenced to a day of total silence in the woods. General pests are robustly sent to shovel snow.

Reports suggest that the community at large is not displeased by this, that former offenders write him grateful notes, and that the judge's wacky sense of humour has been met by thorough approval, unopposed local re-election and the presidency of the American Judges Association.

It takes you back to the days when schoolteachers and other mentors of youth had just this sort of gonzo, freewheeling freedom to suit the punishment to the crime. Mouths were washed out with carbolic soap to teach you not to swear, uneaten rice pudding was served up meal after meal with no thought for bacterial advance, and Dickensian moppets stood in shame with placards round their necks saying "THIEF" or "LIAR". Not, on the whole, days one would wish to hurry back to: though I do know a family of lads whose mother - of my generation - washed their mouths out with soap for telling an elderly babysitter to "Fuck off". They were six and eight when it happened and while it would probably count as child abuse now, it must be said that they never did such a thing again. Say what you like, it was quicker and more effective than all the "withdrawal of approval" and sanctimonious nagging that is prescribed for parents today.

I can also remember the times when school prefects had the power to invent interesting punishments - not all of them sadistic. We are not talking Flashman here, just debonair and witty management of middle-sized misdemeanours. I once spent a whole Saturday afternoon at boarding school down in the basement washing out the vast collection of smelly silver milk-bottle tops the school was saving for guide dogs. It was, I recall, a punishment for brewing alcohol - a misguided attempt at "bluebell wine" in a plastic shampoo bottle which exploded all over the bedroom wall. I think the idea was to help me understand the less attractive side of fermentation. Running round the playing field was another common punishment, with the additional merit of getting you a bit fitter, so that next time you could run faster when you saw the prefect coming.

At another school, thinking that old-fashioned lines were boring and pointless, prefects used to set essays of 500 words on topics of their own invention: "Describe the inside of a ping-pong ball" or "Write a poem in praise of nothing". These were outlawed as "unusual and humiliating punishments", which seems a shame, since such exercises are surely the ideal warming-up routine for facing those famous Oxford and Cambridge interview questions such as "Tell me about a banana" and "Is this a question?"

Children like novelty. They appreciate creativity. They understand also that a great many crimes and misdemeanours are not a sign of evil but of being a wally: merely antisocial and annoying, cause as much for mockery as for po-faced headshaking. It seems from Judge Cicconetti's experience that adults feel that way, too.

Schools, of course, are woven into a national net of po-faced headshaking and restraints on retaliation, so your hands are tied. But hang on - there could be a let-out clause . The Ohio deal is that once convicted the offenders are given a choice: conventional jail or a "creative sentence".

They mostly choose the latter. So perhaps schools could offer the same.

"OK, Samantha. You know the punishment: a week's exclusion and a negative entry in your school record. But if you'd rather I got creative, just say so..."

On which politically incorrect note, I flee the scene with a faint cry of "Merry Christmas!" Might give you teachers something to fantasise about over the holidays, though.

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