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CLEVELAND -- For two days last year, Cleveland mother Shena Hardin, 32, was ordered to stand on the sidewalk, holding a sign that read "Only an idiot would drive on the sidewalk to avoid a school bus."

The punishment made for attention-grabbing news headlines around the world.

However, shame punishments, which are intended to shame or humiliate the offender, are a centuries-old idea that evokes images of the medieval pillory and the scarlet letter.

But do they have a place in the modern criminal justice system?

"I cannot say that it works," said Dr. Lauren Porter, assistant professor of sociology at Kent State University. Porter conducted what is believed to be the only study on whether shame punishments actually work.

Porter analyzed Ohio counties' use of the state's most well-known form of shame punishment: yellow OVI license plates, made mandatory in 2004 for repeat drunken drivers.

"In counties where they were administered more often, those counties do see reductions in drunk driving, up to a point," said Porter. However, she also found that when counties imposed OVI plates for 35 percent of drunken driving offenses or higher, those counties began to see the reverse effect -- an increase in drunken driving offenses.

The reasons why are unknown.

Painesville Municipal Court Judge Michael Cicconetti is perhaps the pioneer of public shaming punishments in Northeast Ohio. He's been imposing creative alternative sentences for years.

"The Constitution says you can't do cruel and unusual punishments," said Cicconetti. "Well, I don't do the cruel part -- it says, 'and,' " he said with a smile.

"Most of the time, they're spontaneous," he said, when asked how he comes up with his alternative sentences.

For example, a man who called a police officer a pig was sentenced to spend time in a pigpen. Three men who were convicted of soliciting prostitution were sentenced to wear chicken suits in the town square. And a woman who abandoned cats in the woods was sentenced by Cicconetti to spend the night in the woods.

"They've been very successful. You don't see the repeat offenders. Some have never come back," said the judge. "Oh, you're gonna have some failings, as with anything, but it's a very small percentage."

Arguably one of those failings would be one of the "johns" who wore chicken suits in 2007.

Shaming apparently wasn't enough for Daniel Chapdelaine, who was later arrested for exposing himself to children. He's now serving an eight-year prison sentence at Marion Correctional Institution.

But the most recent headline grabber involved the unusual sentence imposed by Judge Pinkey Carr upon Hardin for driving on the sidewalk to get around a school bus.

"For me, it was more so her demeanor," said Carr on why she ordered Hardin to hold the idiot sign for three hours each day, for two days at the scene of her offense.

"Not once did she seem apologetic," the judge said. "It's getting (news) coverage. And the whole wide world is watching you, and I think it sort of acts as a deterrent."

Hardin's mother, Toni, described the intense, worldwide media attention that the unusual sentence attracted.

"People threatened her life online. We got calls all over the world. Racial phone calls. Racial threats," said Toni Hardin.

Carr calls the punishment appropriate. However, some court observers disagree.

"The biggest thing you notice if you're looking at it as a lawyer is that the judge has no authority to impose that sentence," said Mike Benza, a criminal law professor at Case Western Reserve University.

Benza says, unlike Cicconetti -- who gives defendants a choice between jail and the alternative sentence -- Carr imposed an additional sentence that is not within the statute.

"She did both. She gave her the fine and suspended her license AND made her stand on the street corner," he said.

Carr insists that she did nothing illegal and that Hardin's two defense attorneys should have argued against her order if they had a problem with it.

"I guess a person does have the right to say 'No, I'm not going to do that,' " she said.

But other attorneys say that if a defendant refuses a judge's order, they put themselves at risk of being held in contempt of court.

Benza says a defendant likely wouldn't have known that saying no was an option.

"The judge should have known. The prosecutor should have known. And the trial attorney, the defense lawyer, should have known. And all three of them have an obligation to make sure the judge is imposing a legal sentence," he said.

We wanted to ask Hardin if she knew that saying no was an option.

However, she suddenly passed away last month, just days after giving birth to a baby boy.

As more judges turn to creative alternatives out of frustration with jail overcrowding, court observers urge caution -- to ensure justice for all.

Benza posed the question: "It's just a traffic case, and who really cares, right?"

"Until it happens to you," he said.

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