by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

If I ever turn to a life of crime, I know just the judge I want.

His name is Alvin Hellerstein, a bald, jowly, 68-year-old federal district court judge in New York City. A few months ago, he sentenced a man named Edward Bello to 10 months.

Not 10 months in jail — 10 months at home, with no TV.

Hey. My parents gave me that, and I was only a minor!

Judge Hellerstein figured that without TV, Bello, who had a record of petty crime convictions and was now pleading guilty to conspiracy to use stolen credit cards, would have time to think about the wrong he had done.

It couldn’t be that Mr. Bello would spend that time looking at dirty magazines, surfing the Internet for bomb-making instructions, listening to gangsta rap on the radio or peering through a telescope to see what time his neighbors left their house — and where they left their credit cards.

No. According to Judge Hellerstein, you take away a man’s TV, you have placed him on the path to righteousness.

(As I said, I want this judge when I turn to the dark side. Maybe if I play my cards right, he’ll only take away my cable.)

Cruel and unusual punishment

Now let’s be honest. If you or I had possession of stolen credit cards and a criminal record, and a judge said “No ‘Seinfeld’ for you,” we would go running from the court screaming: “Hallelujah! Who’s buying the beer?”

But Mr. Bello has seven TVs in his house — and I think we know how he paid for them — and apparently couldn’t do the time that came with his crime. Soon his lawyers were filing an appeal, claiming the judge’s sentence was cruel and unusual punishment and a violation of his First Amendment rights.

(Where are all these lawyers when someone has credit cards stolen? Isn’t that a violation of a few rights, too?)

Naturally, because cases like this go from dumb to dumber, the appeals court actually agreed with Bello’s lawyers and the sentence was stayed. So for the moment, Bello — who, you remember, pleaded guilty! — is at home, free to view whatever he wants.

Now, never mind that in my book cruel and unusual punishment is actually having to watch “Fear Factor,” “Temptation Island” or anything on the E! Channel. Never mind. If Judge Hellerstein had simply shipped Bello off to jail
— a place Bello has never been despite a life of assorted small crimes — then not only would we not be wasting the court’s time, the lawyers’ time, the prosecutor’s time and the clerk’s time but Bello also could be watching all the TV he wants.

He could even watch “Oz.”

‘How to Break into This Old House’

But no. Thanks to yet another man in a robe who seems bored by the guidelines, we now have a national debate. (Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think we need more national debates over who is a bigger idiot: the crook or the judge.)

Originally, Hellerstein told Bello, “I want you, on your honor, to state very clearly that you will not watch TV.” Of course, asking a guy with stolen credit cards to do something on his honor is like asking a hooker to say she loves you.

But shortly thereafter, Hellerstein amended his sentence to allow Bello’s wife and daughters to watch their TVs in the house — as long as Daddy didn’t peek.

Oh, the humanity! Bello claims he watches only the news, the Discovery Channel and “This Old House” (or perhaps its sister program, “How to Break into This Old House”).

The judge defends his sentence, saying he was trying to create “a condition of silent introspection.” (We used to call that solitary confinement.)

Meanwhile, a bunch of people are still missing their credit cards.

And justice for all. Mrs. Bello, Edward’s wife, complained that her husband would be “disconnected from the world” without his TV.

Lady, the way the world is going, that can only be a good thing.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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