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Judicial CP - September 1962

Corpun file 7480 at

Petroleum Today, USA, Fall, 1962

They Call Me The Spanking Judge

The man who earned the title maintains that old-fashioned principles are still valid.

By Hon. W.J. Obermiller

When I became judge of the City Court of Whiting, Ind., two years ago, I very soon decided that something had to be done about the young offenders who were constantly being paraded before the bench.

At first I tried the so-called psychological approach -- you know, the theory that holds that you must not give teenagers a complex. I felt, and I continue to feel, that children are not born bad. Thus I tried to reason with these youngsters; I put them on probation and gave them "just one more chance" to be good. It was not long before I discovered that this was a mistake.

I could understand and sympathize with the first offender who committed a minor offense. I could not tolerate the repeated offender.

Here were children committing adult crimes, strutting about like adults, bragging about what they were getting away with. The younger ones knew that because they were juveniles their names would not be used in the newspapers and that they would not be subject to the punishment meted out to adults.

When they came before me, these teenagers would usually have with them a few members of their gang or club to serve as a cheering section. The routine of paying a fine meant nothing. The defendants were anxious to flash a role of bills, generally singles, and with great show of bravado pay the fine.

They would then saunter out and rejoin the club; they were heroes and assumed a higher status in the organization.

Probation did not work with them, nor did fines; sometimes even jail sentences did not work. In many instances as an older juvenile (18 years of age and over) left to serve his sentence, the atmosphere resembled a festive farewell party. Picture, if you can, one of these young men as he swings himself into the squad car, waving to his friends, shouting, "I'll see you all when I get out." Again, the court's punishment accomplished little more than raising the offender in the eyes of his gang.

What could I do? The answer I have found to these problems has been given a great deal of national publicity, and it has brought me congratulatory letters from all over the country, and from many foreign lands as well. What is more important, it seems to be working.

I have awarded haircuts and spankings for teenage delinquents. I have assigned them to work details where they spend long hours doing worthwhile jobs for the community or for their churches. I have assigned them special readings and then tested them on the assignments. I have in all cases attempted to make the punishment fit the crime, and to make the punishment such that it removes the tawdry "glamour" of jail or court appearances.

The embarrassment caused by such punishments is my key weapon. A juvenile committing an adult offense is on the road to destruction. I am attempting to grab him back, to pull him into the proper circle of family and community. And I am attempting to do this in court.

Several young adults appeared before me some months ago on a charge of disorderly conduct following a drinking brawl on the beach. One of them, to get my attention, snapped his fingers in real "bop" fashion. As he spun about after my verbal barrage, I noticed his badge: a comb sticking from the rear pocket of his jeans. That final touch brought me to a decision.

As a result, some rather unusual terms of probation were dealt out as a means of saving these young people from themselves -- and from a jail sentence.

First, the boys were marched over to a local barbershop. They emerged shorn of their locks. When the youths returned to court to undergo my inspection, they looked not unlike a group of G I recruits ready for their first assignment.

They soon got it. They were detailed to spend three hours cleaning up the Whiting Beach every Saturday morning during the summer. I explained that if they performed the task in a conscientious fashion, they could expect time off. If they failed to do so, their probation would be immediately revoked and they would go to jail.

Every Saturday morning I would assign the various work details, arranging the work periods to fit the boys' school or employment schedules. No conversation or smoking was permitted on the job, but I did allow a refreshment break in mid-morning for those whose performance rated it. The break period gave me an opportunity to counsel with the boys, to talk over their attitudes and problems.

Other work assignments have included painting a school fence, pulling weeds from around a Little League field, dusting and repairing books in the library, maintenance work at churches. I sincerely believe that this return to wholesome areas of activity has been good for them.

Many young defendants are school "dropouts". One such lad appeared before me several times on minor violations. The last time his offense was more serious. When I learned from his mother that he wanted to be a mechanic, I assigned him to work with the city mechanic for the remainder of the summer. Other dropouts have been given long reading assignments in books suggested by the local librarians; written reports on these books are required.

Much of what I have done is intended to reinforce parental authority, for one believes that the loss of this vital force in the environment of many of today's children plays a key role in the whole subject of juvenile delinquency.

I remember three young boys who appeared before me after they had been engaged in a heavy public drinking bout. Their parents were in court and seemed to be unable to cope with the boys. All three had appeared before me several times previously; they were particularly surly and were very disrespectful to their parents.

As terms of the boys' probation, and with their parents' consent, I ordered spankings. The parents felt that since the police officers who had arrested the three had been defied and ridiculed, these same officers should apply the 15 "fatherly" whacks. The boys blinked back the tears.

When they left the courtroom, the picture had changed. The parents led the family parade with their sons following. The bravado was gone. The gang "cheering section", eyes downcast, went out by another door.

Now, I do not believe that such measures represent any magic formula for handling troublesome teenagers. I do believe that they represent an honest effort to show youngsters what real toughness means.

It's tough to stand up for the principles you believe in. That really takes courage and stamina; you might call it "moral toughness". And in this matter, adults set the example. It is difficult to talk about sound citizenship in the afternoon session of court and then have the youngster pick up the evening paper and read about wrongdoing by government officials and other persons of note. And it is difficult to help a youngster whose parents have been either indifferent towards him or over-indulgent.

Parents must make themselves available after school hours. If they are not at home, their sons and daughters will seek advice elsewhere: on the street. This leads to the formation of the gang. The leader assumes the responsibility that the parents let slip by.

Too often parents fail because they find it too much trouble to give up the golf game or the bridge party to spend time with their children. Weekend parents cannot make up for the attention they should have been giving their children in the after-school hours. And it is this decadent self-indulgence on the part of the parents that is responsible for the "live for today" attitude of their children.

The job I am doing in court is aimed at helping parents to do their job and to regain their rightful positions in their households. I order only that type of correction that the father or mother would if they were living up to their responsibilities.

The reaction thus far has been favorable. The gangs in the area have all but split up and disappeared. The boys assigned to work details are performing well, and we are getting fewer repeaters before the bench. The boys are learning respect, and the parent is the boss again.


blob 16 August 2000: Obituary: William J. Obermiller, 77, 'Spanking Judge' of 1960s

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