Last month, a Utah judge produced a pair of scissors from behind the stand, placed them in the hands of 13-year-old Kaytlen Lopan's mother, who hesitantly proceeded to chop off her daughter's ponytail in court.
The judge sentenced Lopan to 30 days of detention, 150 community service hours, and an in-court haircut for cutting a 3-year-old girl's hair into a bob with dollar-store scissors. Although court sentences aimed at shaming defendants have become popular, critics say that judges are abusing their freedom and undermining the court system.
At the May 28 hearing, 7th District Juvenile Judge Scott Johansen made a deal to reduce Lopan's community service time from 276 hours to 150 hours if Valerie Bruno, Lopan's mother, cut her daughter's ponytail in court-all the way "to the rubber band." After meting out the judge's punishment, Bruno filed a formal complaint against the judge with the Utah Judicial Conduct Commission for intimidating her into the eye-for-an-eye penalty.
"Many people feel they are not in position to refuse these types of demands," said Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington University. "Not to make excuses for the girl, but feeling intimidated by the court is a very common response."
Mindy Moss, the victim's mother, told The Salt Lake Tribune she originally called police about the malicious haircut because she feared Lopan's behavior could become more serious. Lopan and her 11-year-old companion befriended the toddler in March while playing at a McDonald's, then used a pair of scissors purchased from a nearby dollar store to cut off several inches of her hair. The girls were summoned to court for the hair incident and for harassing another girl by telephone. Johansen ordered the 11-year-old to get her hair cut short also, but she was allowed to go to a salon.
State law gives judges discretion in coming up with sanctions for youth that will change their behavior in a positive way. But critics argue that shame sentences are an abuse of this freedom.
"The use of arbitrary and capricious authority is not what this girl needs to learn," Turley said. "The court is showing her he can do to her what she did to other people."
Turley believes that shaming sentences undermine justice and convey the wrong message. He said that the court reduced itself to the level of a 13-year-old, teaching neither a moral nor a legal lesson. Instead, Turley said, the ruling demonstrates the merging of law and entertainment that has happened in the last ten years thanks to the influence of television programs such as Judge Judy and Judge Brown.
Turley said that very few judges end up being disciplined for potentially inappropriate sentences. It is the obligation of every state bar to protect the legal system's integrity, he said.
But Johansen is not the only judge dolling out unconventional sentences. In 2009, a Texas court sentenced an abusive father to 30 days in jail or 30 nights sleeping in a doghouse. The man chose the doghouse in order to keep his job. In another case, an Ohio judge sentenced a woman to sleep outside in a remote location for abandoning kittens in parks.
Historically, shame sentences have roots, with humiliating punishments like stocks, exile, and torture used to penalize offenders, said Mark Osler, professor at the St. Thomas University School of Law, in St. Paul, Minn.
"While these sentences recognize hope for the individual, they can also be de-humanizing," Osler said. The current legal system has evolved away from de-humanizing punishments, but Osler is not worried by the apparent trend in shame sentencing. In the end, shame sentences are isolated occurrences found only in minor cases, like those with juveniles, he said: "This is just not something that will break into the wider sphere of sentencing."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.