tampabay.com

Second time around, punishment fits crime

A Times Editorial
Published February 14, 2007


One case doe not a trend make, so it is too soon to say with certainty that Circuit Judge Ric Howard is easing off his tough stance toward young male defendants who appear in his court.

But the judge's change of heart toward Jason Aron Hall is a good sign because it means that at least one young man will not have his future destroyed by a reckless act and a disproportionate sentence.

Hall clearly was at fault when he and his young girlfriend had consensual sex on more than one occasion. No matter how strong their feelings are for one another, theirs was an illicit relationship because of their ages: He was 19, she was 15.

The young couple compounded their troubles by seeking to alleviate their boredom one day at the expense of the Beverly Hills Recreation Association. Police reports say that the pair tried to set a fire in one of the park's bathrooms. When that failed, they managed to set a fire that destroyed the park's wooden pavilion.

When Hall appeared before Howard in November on charges of second-degree arson and lewd and lascivious battery, he made several more mistakes. First, he was late to the hearing, which did not sit well with the judge. Next, he entered an open plea to the court, asking for mercy.

He received none. Instead, Howard sent him to adult prison for 10 years.

Howard has made a name for himself locally for such harsh sentences, particularly for young male offenders. Hall had just become another victim of Howard's wrath.

Something changed, however, between that November session and a hearing last week that sought to persuade the judge to reconsider the sentence. On Friday, Howard changed his stance completely and gave Hall a sentence that made sense.

After the judge handed down the original sentence, the Times said that a more reasonable sentence would have been to order Hall to make restitution to the Recreation Association for the financial losses incurred from the fire. Putting a 19-year-old in prison for 10 years would have done nothing to make the victims whole.

As for the sex charges, it was suggested that probation and counseling would be in order for a young man who apparently was on good terms with the girl's family. He clearly was not a sexual predator but a person needing guidance and counseling on appropriate behavior. Hall was not going to learn any such life lessons in prison.

Hall showed a proper amount of contrition in court on Friday, having been scared to the marrow by his stint behind bars. Whatever lesson it was that Howard intended to deliver to Hall, it is safe to say that the message has been received.

Howard then sentenced Hall to 10 years of probation and ordered him to make restitution to the association of $5,000. The association approved the change in sentence, noting that "restitution was preferable to jail."

The new sentence makes sense within the parameters of the law and in the realm of justice and fairness. It metes out punishment for crimes committed, but does so with mercy and reason.

It also demonstrates that Howard can be flexible. There are several families in the area that might now be encouraged to ask the judge to reconsider the harsh terms he has handed down to their sons.