First-time shoplifters are required to hold signs in front of the store they stole from.
Tired of the negative attention, some stores have asked Miller to make shoplifters display their signs away from their stores. [Photo: Will Dickey/The Times-Union]
When he was 5, Peter T. Miller stole a piece of penny bubblegum from a five-and-dime store. He got away with it, too, until his father found out. “My daddy made me go right back, and he made me apologize in front of a store full of people,” Miller says. “And then when I got back home, he beat my butt.” It was a lesson learned for Miller, now a Putnam County judge. He never stole again.
These days, Miller sits on the bench and hears cases every day involving people who never learned that same lesson. He doesn’t have much sympathy for thieves, but he doesn’t incarcerate them every chance he gets, either. For first-time shoplifters, he substitutes the typical 30-day jail sentence for something he thinks will do more good: He makes the offenders carry around in public for up to four hours a sign that says they stole from a local store.
| Judge Peter T. Miller, 66
Jurisdiction: Putnam County
His term: He plans to step down when his current term ends in 2013, capping more then 25 years on the bench.
Childhood: Miller grew up on a turpentine farm near Palatka, where his family also raised cattle.
On what kept him out of trouble growing up: “I’d have to face my daddy if I got caught doing anything, and I’d rather face a firing squad than face my daddy.”
Joe Boatwright, managing assistant state attorney for Putnam County, says, “The carrying of the sign does have a deterrent effect within the community, especially in preventing those first-time offenders who carry the sign from re-offending.”
Mack Brunton, an assistant public defender in Putnam County, likes Miller and calls him a fair judge, but Brunton is no fan of the sign. “Our office, of course we don’t like it, but it’s a legal sentence,” he says. “Obviously, we’ve looked into that over the years. We represent our clients and we don’t care for it, but does it seem to have a deterrent effect? It does. You have some people who are repeat offenders and always are going to be, but most people it definitely has a deterrent effect.”
In Palatka, the sign carriers were sentenced to march in front of the store where the crime took place, but then some stores got tired of the negative attention and asked Miller to make them march somewhere else. In that case, they march up and down by the Putnam County Courthouse. The local Walmart is an exception. First-time shoplifters there march in an empty lot across from the store, where they don’t get in the way of shoppers but are still conspicuous in their humiliation.
“You have to see them because this is also for the folks out there who obey the law,” Miller says. “They see that the punishment is something more than just a slap on the wrist. They can see this is what happens when you break the law. It’s maybe something they can point out to a child they’re raising.”
Over the years, Miller has answered questions about his methods from curious fellow judges, although he isn’t aware of any of them doing something similar. He says the punishment works in Putnam County because the community is small enough that most people know each other, which ups the embarrassment ante compared to a larger city where a shoplifter might get lucky enough to march in anonymity.
But they do notice in Palatka. To mitigate the embarrassment, some miscreants show up for their punishment wearing dark sunglasses. Miller doesn’t allow it. “We tell them to take the sunglasses off or you’re going to have to do it again,” he says. “I’ve had people tell me, ‘just put me in jail instead,’ and that’s when I know it’s working.”