The concept of cruel and unusual punishment dates to the Eighth Amendment and well before it. Now the Pennsylvania judiciary, which has never been all that attached to precedent, has given us an unexpected twist: kind and unusual punishment.
Former state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin is facing some unusual punishment indeed for staffing her election campaigns with state employees. Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Lester Nauhaus this week ordered her to write an apology to every judge in the state on a copy of a photograph of herself in handcuffs. For the recipients, this will no doubt feel something like compulsory membership in a very strange fan club.
Here's the kind part: Melvin will serve the entirety of her three-year sentence in what Pittsburgh City Paper called "SCI [State Correctional Institute] Wexford" - that is, her five-bedroom, 3,600-square-foot, half-million-dollar home in suburban Pittsburgh. She will be allowed to leave her personal prison to attend church and to work at a soup kitchen three times a week.
Melvin's sister, codefendant, and former aide, Janine Orie, was also sentenced to house arrest, in her case for a year. But a third sister who was convicted last year as a result of the same investigation, former State Sen. Jane Orie, is serving at least 21/2 years at SCI Cambridge Springs, a regular old hoosegow. That Nauhaus did not prescribe prison time for the other sisters was at odds with the recommendation of prosecutors and the expectations of legal experts.
The judge explained that he believes prison is "for dangerous people." But that belief is not in line with the practices of the commonwealth or the principle that serious crimes deserve serious punishment. White-collar criminals are routinely incarcerated even though they're not likely to stab the next person they see on the street.
While Nauhaus sounded outraged enough when he sent Melvin to her room(s), his sentence ends up looking too much like professional courtesy. Even the scarlet-letter flourish of requiring a mass apology wrongly suggests that the victims of Melvin's crimes are her indignant fellow judges, rather than the citizens she robbed of honest services.