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Molly Shattuck, center in striped shirt, leaves the Sussex County Courthouse in Georgetown, Del., in June, after pleading guilty to raping a 15-year-old boy.
The Lowdown

Weekends in Jail for Rape?

Why people get sentenced to “weekend jail.”

When Molly Shattuck, a 48-year-old fitness writer and former Baltimore Ravens cheerleader, walked out of a Delaware courtroom last week, several observers were left scratching their heads. Shattuck, who pleaded guilty to raping her son’s 15-year-old friend, was sentenced to 48 alternating weekends at the Sussex Violation of Probation Center, in Georgetown, Del. The seemingly light sentence received heavy criticism from victims’ rights groups, including Lisae C. Jordan, executive director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, who called it “totally inappropriate.” Shattuck’s punishment also raised more general questions about weekend sentences, when they’re used, and what types of crimes merit them.

DUIs and Speeding Tickets

Instead of a traditional imprisonment, “weekend jail” is typically given to people convicted of nonviolent crimes, such as DUIs, chronic speeding, petty thefts, and failure to pay child support. Defense attorneys and prosecutors can both request this option, and judges usually have latitude in deciding the terms. The hope, says Paul Howard, District Attorney for Fulton County, Ga., is to “allow defendants to maintain their family and career lifestyle” while ensuring accountability for crimes.

With weekend punishments, for example, the tipsy college student discovered during a late-night traffic stop could serve time and still attend classes, all without significantly adding to already cramped jail space. What happens during these stints varies. Some jails require the offender to pick up trash or perform other manual tasks. Others don’t, and the offender spends the entire weekend in a holding cell.

Insider’s Perspective

Herb Hoelter, co-founder of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, says that while weekend jail does prevent people from losing their jobs while serving time, the sentences do take an emotional toll. “If you count every weekend in jail, that’s 104 days,” Hoelter says. “A lot of guys would rather do three months straight and get it over with.”

What Everyone Gets Wrong

As the Shattuck case proves, the categories of offenders awarded such sentences also include more serious offenses (Shattuck’s attorneys successfully persuaded the Delaware judge that a traditional sentence would be unfair and harmful to Shattuck’s three children, who range from ages 12 to 16).

Some courts routinely include those convicted of dealing drugs, burglary, and childabuse. In May, a former Georgia police chief and his wife were sentenced to 25 weekends after pleading guilty to leaving their adopted children locked in a room for years with little food. The prosecutor said he agreed to the deal after hearing glowing accounts of the chief’s reputation from members of the law enforcement community and because he wanted to spare the children from testifying in court.

Canada’s Cap

Canada also uses weekend sentences for low-level crimes, but with important differences: Canadian law limits the option to offenders with sentences of 90 days or less. There’s currently no U.S. law that governs state and local usage or lengths of sentences. David Barnes, a former police officer convicted of molestation, received an 180-day weekend sentence from a Philadelphia-area judge. And a Columbia County court in New York ordered a 26-weekend sentence in 2014 for a local man convicted of tax evasion.