Here, lawbreakers listen to Beethoven
Fort Lupton, Colo., judge is one of many who use unorthodox
FORT LUPTON, COLO. — Every other Friday night, a handful of residents in this small frontier town north of Denver live in fear of Ludwig van Beethoven.
And John Denver.
And Tony Orlando.
To those who violate the city's noise ordinance, listening to this music is a punishment worse than simply paying a fine. "Maybe by imposing something distasteful on you, you realize why we get complaints," court coordinator Patrice Kenner Red Earth tells the assembled.
For the Fort Lupton judge who devised the program, it's an attempt to make violators think more deeply about their actions. But for national legal experts it's an example of a new twist on an old trend.
Judges for years have used alternative punishments to try to reform criminals when fines and jail time fail. Yet Fort Lupton's music diversion - and the growth of other programs like it nationwide - is evidence that many of these sentences are becoming increasingly unorthodox. As a result, many in the legal community are questioning whether these punishments have gone over the edge, becoming more clever than effective.
"It's instant gratification. People like it. They get some bang for their buck," says Jeffrey Abramson, a professor of politics and law at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. "In some cases it may be counterproductive, and in some cases, meaningless."
Besides trivializing crime and its consequences, Professor Abramson says there are no standards that guide alternative punishments, and not enough evidence they work. Some of the punishments can even humiliate offenders and encourage antisocial behavior, he adds.
Some off-the-wall examples: In Memphis, Tenn., a judge allowed victims of theft to take items from the burglar's home. And in Maryland, a man convicted of selling false insurance policies to horse trainers had to clean the stables of Baltimore's mounted-police unit.
"In the end, it's kind of a wink and nod," says Abramson. "It's saying, 'Let's have a yuk at this.' "
Indeed, alternative sentencing is not always more effective than traditional jail time, experts say. But its supporters counter that participants in inventive punishments rarely fare worse than those in more conventional ones.
"The recidivism rate appears to be no worse," says Marc Mauer, assistant director of The Sentencing Project in Washington, an organization that promotes alternatives to incarceration. "And in some cases, [alternative sentencing is] considerably more effective," he adds, referring to drug and alcohol programs.
Alternative sentencing began 15 to 20 years ago both to avoid the costs of sending criminals to prison and to search for a middle ground between prison and probation, he says. Today, standard programs - including community service, boot camp, and alcohol and drug treatment - have become well-established, with many courts setting up alternative-sentencing mechanisms.
In Fort Lupton, a town of 5,100 citizens, law-enforcement officials say they are pleased with their results. They estimate 45 people have passed through the impromptu music lounge since November, with no repeat customers.
"People don't mind coming in and paying a fine," says Ms. Red Earth. "That doesn't teach them anything."
Fort Lupton municipal court judge Paul Sacco, who launched the music program, agrees, saying the program is a more personal punishment.
"They don't feel like cattle," says Judge Sacco, a musician, who says he pulled the idea "out of thin air" when he was sentencing people one day.
Under the program, offenders still pay a $35 court administrative fee, but instead of an additional $60 fine, they have to listen to 60 minutes of music that the court chooses.
For the gathering, the Fort Lupton City Council chambers transform into a musical detention hall at 8:30 p.m. During a recent session, a crowd made up primarily of men in their teens and early 20s files by a small printed sign that reads "Music Immersion Diversion Program" and into the room. Most of them have been nabbed after complaints were made by senior citizens, cited for playing loud music while cruising on the local boulevards, says Red Earth.
The rules are simple: No talking, no laughing, no gum-chewing, no breaks.
"The big thing is, you can't fall asleep," Red Earth adds.
When the stone-faced officer-turned-principal pushes the play button on his small, black cassette player, the music - frequently distorted by the recording relic - begins.
The selections change for each session. The goal: to find the most undesirable mix of tunes imaginable. This night, the set starts with a block of classical music including Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, then turns provincial with the song, "Sleeping in My Car," a Sacco original. Also in the mix is "Tie a Yellow Ribbon," by Tony Orlando and Dawn.
No current chart-toppers here. Yet the participants didn't seem to be in agony. In fact, some were even tapping their feet from time to time.
That will be a relief to some critics, who worry about a program that portrays some types of music as "bad." "I hate to see somebody equate one style of music as punishment," says Daniel Sher, dean of the University of Colorado at Boulder College of Music.
But Sacco maintains the music itself is not necessarily the punishment - he even credits himself with exposing lawbreakers to songs they would not normally hear.
"Just the fact that they're having to sit in a chair for an hour makes them want to scream," he says.
When the session finishes, different attendees leave singing different tunes.
"I don't want to be here," says John Pino Jr., who was busted for listening to loud rhythm and blues in his automobile.
Mr. Pino says the music in the punishment program was not "horrible," but adds that the program "is expensive and it does take out of our time, so I guess I will take into consideration other people's thoughts."
Manuel Mendoza, however, is not cured. The teen cited for playing country music in his pickup says he will do it again: "I'll just make sure to look out for cops next time."