That’s the question that’s been buzzing online after a Smith County judge ordered a 21 year-old man to marry his 19 year-old girlfriend after he assaulted her ex-boyfriend.
The story has gone viral but as strange as it may sound, this unorthodox sentence is just one of a handful of “shaming”-type rulings that have made headlines in the past few years.
Evan Young is an attorney with Baker Botts in Austin and he says the marriage sentence isn’t all that uncommon. “The reality is that this is one of many types of sentences that a judge might try to impose,” Young says. “Why would [a judge] make someone who violates a noise ordinance listen to music that they hate, or make some guy who was abusing his kid sleep in a dog house for a month, or banish somebody from a county, or sentence someone to church? These are all real examples of things that have happened… some of them have been upheld, some of them have not, but really the key thing is: most of them have never been challenged.”
So if these off-the-wall sentences usually hold up in court, are there limits to what a judge can sentence someone to? “We don’t really know for sure exactly what a judge can do because most of these are in relatively small cases — it’s 15 days in jail or get married,” Young says. “If that condition had been challenged, a court of appeals probably would have been able to say, ‘Look, marriage is a fundamental right. We don’t have the government telling people they have to get married or that they can’t get married or must stay married.’ Those are deeply personal matters that are usually unrelated to the offense and unrelated to the goals of the criminal justice system — which is to protect society, to deter people from committing a crime, and to rehabilitate a defendant.”
But Young says that these rulings are often in line with the goals of the criminal justice system. “Some of those conditions… maybe they really do advance those goals,” he says. “It might be legitimate to say to a father who made his son sleep in a 2 by 3 [foot] doghouse for a month ‘I’m gonna make sure that you remember not to do this sort of thing again, and I’m gonna have you have a dose of your own medicine.”
And Young says sentences other than fines or time behind bars may also benefit the suspect’s family and community as well. “Putting that father into prison for a month — that could have been very destructive to the family’s life and the judge looked at the facts and decided that maybe it was more sensible to try something less extreme,” he says.
Like many others, Young feels there should be certain limits to a judge’s discretion — a respect for religious liberty, for instance. “You do see examples where judges order, [for example], writing out a verse from Proverbs a certain number of times — ‘If a man digs a pit, he will fall into it’… But it’s not unusual to take those kind of school-like approaches.'” he says. “If the judge sentences someone to write out something that’s very specific to a religion — you know, John 3:16 or something — you could say ‘Well wait, what does that really have to do with this particular offense?'”
Young says the key is how well the punishment fits the crime.
So how effective are these types of rulings? We’re still not sure. “I don’t know of any study that’d made much headway in determining whether or not these punishments are a better source of deterrence, say, than prison or fines might be,” Young says. “On the other hand, I think a number of judges have said ‘I know what’s gonna happen if I make this guy go to jail for a month… they’ll lose their job, they’ll probably not be able to get another one for a while, their family will slip into deeper poverty, he’ll become more desperate and maybe… turn to theft.”
So for first-time offenders, these lighter interventions may end up being a huge benefit to them down the road. “It’s usually a first-time offense or someone who hasn’t really had serious problems with the law,” Young says. “If things go bad, if this doesn’t work, then there’s always prison the next time.”
Young says for judges, it all come backs to one central question: “What can I do that tries to achieve the goals of the justice system [so that] hopefully we’ll never see this person in court again?”
And if the couple who was forced to get married divorces, will they go to prison? “I would be very surprised,” Young says.