In the early morning hours on Tuesday, Durell Scales reported to the York County Judicial Center, where a deputy sheriff showed him inside the building to pick up a sign that read, “I AM A SERIAL RETAIL THIEF. 7 PRIORS !!”
Then, Scales, 42, walked outside, stood in front of the courthouse on North George Street and began serving the unorthodox part of his punishment for shoplifting a Nintendo Switch from Best Buy. Last week, Common Pleas Judge Harry M. Ness offered him a sentence of two years’ probation, with the first six months on house arrest, if he held that sign twice per week, for three consecutive weeks, outside the courthouse. He had been facing additional incarceration.
Ness had stated that he tried to come up with a resolution that would make a change in Scales’ life.
Scales wasn’t alone for long. The York NAACP organized an effort to bring out people to stand in solidarity with him and call attention to what they see as an injustice. So several others soon joined him with signs of their own.
“He is a human being,” said Sandra Thompson, an attorney who’s president of the York NAACP, “and he is worthy of support.”
Thompson said it’s critical to address the underlying issues that drive retail theft such as addiction. Treatment doesn’t always work the first time, she said, but dehumanizing someone is not going to help. She said it’s important to have restorative justice that makes a difference in peoples’ lives.
Black people, including lawyers, often experience humiliation in the courtroom, she said.
Scales said he’s experienced drug addiction and mental health issues, including anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. He’s been living in hotels and stole to help support himself. But he emphasized that he’s not trying to justify his behavior.
When Scales first heard about the proposal, he said it put him in “a bad mind state.”
“I couldn’t believe it,” Scales said. “Felt like an animal. Felt like a dog being chained to a pole.”
Scales had also appeared in court for several probation violations and was sentenced to no additional time. He had served more than six months in York County Prison.
Dann Johns said he came out to show support because he didn’t feel the punishment was right. He brought Scales some bottled water and stood outside with a pink sign that read, “Who’s next?”
“Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad that Mr. Scales is not in jail — especially during this pandemic,” said Johns, 56, a divorce mediator and community activist who lives in York Township. “But the public humiliation part of this is not right.”
Johns said he hoped that the judge would reconsider that part of the sentence and decide one day of holding the sign was enough.
Some cars honked. A few people raised a clenched fist, a sign of Black power. One man who was riding a motorcycle made racist comments about a Black Lives Matter sign in the demonstration and then sped off through the intersection of East Philadelphia Street.
A woman who was walking past the courthouse went across the street to Stage Deli on George and bought Scales a Pepsi and breakfast sandwich.
“Thank you,” Scales told the woman, as she handed him the soda. “God bless you.”
Joe Gothie, a defense attorney in York, walked up and hugged him.
By 4 p.m., the crowd had grown to about 25 people. York Mayor Michael Helfrich was in attendance.
With a bullhorn in one hand, Ja’Quaya Dowling paced back and forth and tried to get the attention of cars driving by with chants including, “No justice, no peace.”
Dowling, 25, a behavioral health specialist from York, said she felt the punishment was not right. “This is inhumane,” she said. “Public humiliation should’ve stopped years ago.”
York County District Attorney Dave Sunday later came outside with pastors and stated that his office has filed a petition asking the judge to reconsider the sentence.
The Black Ministers’ Association of York, he said, contacted him about the case. Sunday said he participated in a Zoom meeting and then personally looked at the file. He said he believes that a wellness court could be a good option.
“We want to give people the tools they need to not reoffend,” Sunday said. “Very simply, I think that treatment court might be an appropriate option.”
Sunday said he did not come outside to offer a take on the sentence. “I respect the opinion of the court tremendously,” he said.
Scales said he hadn’t spoken to anyone in the district attorney’s office.
(This story continues after the photo gallery):
One member of the York NAACP, Roy Moreira, said he took off work from his position as director of an insurance agency to protest what he saw as an injustice.
Moreira, 49, of Seven Valleys, said he believed that, unless it’s a common punishment, one person — and one race — should not be subjected to that treatment. He said he wanted Scales to know that he stood with him.
Said Moreira: “We want equal justice for all.”
Contact Dylan Segelbaum at 717-771-2102.