Judge, DA, defendant weigh in on York man holding sign IDing him as 'serial' thief
An eight-time convicted shoplifter ordered to stand in front of the York County Judicial Center while holding a sign identifying him as a "serial retail thief" wasn't alone on Tuesday.
Throughout the day, supporters showed up and stood with him, holding their own signs. Some read "He is a man," "Who's next?" and "Black Lives Matter."
Those supporters, including local attorney and York NAACP President Sandra Thompson, maintain that the sign-holding portion of Durell M. Scales' sentence serves no purpose other than to humiliate him.
Supporters "recognize he is a human being and worthy of support," Thompson said, and believe the same shaming sentence would not have been handed down to a white person. The 42-year-old Scales is Black.
Scales suffers from anxiety, depression, mental-health and addiction issues, and is homeless, he said.
Thompson said defendants such as Scales need sentences that help address their underlying issues.
"Dehumanizing them does not help," she said. "They're already degraded. They're already rejected. They've already (been made to feel) 'less.'"
But presiding Common Pleas Judge Harry M. Ness told The York Dispatch that his primary intent in handing down the unusual sentence wasn't about humiliating Scales — it was about doing something that makes Scales change his behavior.
"I think the point is to have him ... see himself as others see him," the judge said. "That’s my last hope for him. Otherwise I’ll just lock him up."
DA suggests treatment court: Late Tuesday afternoon, York County District Attorney Dave Sunday stood outside the judicial center with members of the Black Ministers' Association of York, but not next to Scales.
Sunday said he cannot speak publicly about Scales' case because it is active, then said his office has filed a petition asking Ness to reconsider Scales' sentence and allow him into the county's treatment court program.
Treatment court is designed to address the underlying issues that cause defendants to offend.
Scales was arrested and charged with felony retail theft while he was already on probation in three other retail theft cases, according to Ness. The most recent case happened in December in Springettsbury Township, court records state.
Scales said he stole a Nintendo Switch worth about $300.
Retail thefts are generally misdemeanors unless the amount of the stolen item exceeds $1,000, or is a firearm or vehicle — or when someone has multiple previous retail-theft convictions, like Scales.
Scales' defense attorney, Alisa Livaditis, reached a negotiated agreement with prosecutors that called for Scales to serve six to 23 months in York County Prison, but Ness refused to accept it.
'We did everything': Instead, he told Scales he was sending him to state prison.
"We did everything we could do (to help Scales)," the judge said, including previously giving him probation and access to drug treatment.
Ness said Scales asked the judge not to send him to state prison.
"He said, 'I'll do anything,'" Ness recounted. "I said, 'Will you do this?' And he said yes."
Ness then sentenced Scales to two years of probation with the first six months on house arrest and ordered him to stand in front of the courthouse Tuesdays and Thursdays for three weeks, holding a sign that says "I am a serial retail thief (with) 7 priors!!"
The judge said he's never handed down such a sentence before and said it had nothing to do with race. He said he would do it again in the future for other defendants, if it's appropriate.
"He happened to be the (defendant) who created a frustration point in my career," Ness said. "I actually let him out of prison even though he didn't have a place to live."
Currently, the county's probation office is paying for Scales to stay at a New Cumberland-area hotel, both Scales and the judge confirmed.
Ness said Scales thanked him in court and seemed happy not to go to state prison and said Scales' attorney also seemed to think it was a good idea. Livaditis did not return a phone message seeking comment Tuesday.
"He was happy," the judge said. "Now he sees himself as a victim anew, I guess."
Lost job: Scales told The York Dispatch he had a job lined up but had to turn it down because he has to stand in front of the judicial center twice a week for three weeks.
He said he was surprised people reached out to stand with him and offer their support.
"I appreciate it," he said.
Thompson said Black people don't get the same justice or consideration and "are always in this position," even as lawyers.
"How far will we take this?" Thompson asked. "We need restorative justice that makes a positive difference in people's lives."
Ness acknowledged the choice he gave Scales was a Hobson's choice, meaning not much of a choice at all.
"But once you've done everything you can do," the judge noted, what choices are left? He said if his choice is either doing nothing or punishing Scales and protecting society, he's going to punish Scales.
Probation hasn't worked in the past for Scales, the judge said.
Supporters weigh in: Scales said he's trying to get his life back on track and that having to hold the sign has affected his mental well-being.
Seven Valleys resident Roy Moreira said he wanted to show his support for Scales because he doesn't believe a white defendant would have received the same sentence and wants the judge to reconsider.
Dann Johns, of York Township, said he believes the sentence is humiliating for Scales and serves no real purpose. He also said he's hoping Ness will note the public's response and reconsider.
At one point in the late afternoon, Scales was surrounded by about two dozen supporters.
— Reach senior crime reporter Liz Evans Scolforo at email@example.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.