TAVARES — George McCovery shed 25 pounds in 20 days on the "lose-a-pound, gain-a-day" plan suggested by a judge, and so was released from jail in time for Thanksgiving at home.
Lake County Judge Donna Miller sentenced McCovery, 37, earlier this month for driving with a suspended license. After he mentioned his need for his blood pressure medication and his desire to lose weight, she offered a deal. She promised the 345-pound man that she would shrink his stay at the Lake County Jail by one day for every pound he lost while in custody.
After 20 days in the slammer, where he limited his intake mostly to vegetables on his dinner tray, he weighed in Monday at 320 pounds, and Miller sent him home to West Palm Beach.
"It's not easy to lose weight. I thought he'd lose 5, maybe 6 pounds — not 25," said Miller, 64, who has often dished out creative sentences during her 17 years as a county judge. "It's like (sentencing) someone in a drug case. I'd much rather have them stop doing drugs than send them to jail. I hope I can help."
Miller, the judge on Lake Courts, a TV program on a community-access channel that replays criminal proceedings in her courtroom, has ordered defendants to take up jogging, enroll in dance class and tutor math. She often assigns misdemeanor offenders to pull weeds or turn dirt in a community vegetable garden that benefits food pantries.
"I don't do any Jerry Springer stuff where people have to parade outside Walmart with a sign that says, 'I'm a thief,' " Miller said, referring to punishment that includes public humiliation. "I do what I do to try to change the person in front of me. But I know I can't help everyone. If the person needs jail, they get jail."
Bobby Azcano, a lawyer with the Ticket Clinic law firm, said Miller's approach on the bench is unusual in the Central Florida courts where he practices.
"I think she's a counselor on the bench, is how I would describe it,'' Azcano said. "She's interested in the rehabilitation process. She's not as punitive as other judges are."
A former teacher who has worked as a public defender and once served as the Lake County sheriff's attorney, Miller admitted some peers have cautioned her to act more judicial and less like a social worker. She shrugs off the criticism.
"I'm the Tim Tebow of the courtroom," Miller said, half-joking in her reference to the former University of Florida football star widely criticized by NFL pundits for unconventional, but successful, quarterbacking skills.
Miller usually gives defendants a choice between her specially tailored sentence or jail and fines.
In October, Gwendolyn Wages, 50, appeared in Miller's court on a probation violation that accused her of failing to complete a community-service requirement for causing a wreck while impaired by pain medicine. The Ocala woman, limited by back and hip ailments, said she was not healthy enough for physical work.
Prosecutors offered to forgive the violation and five days in jail if Wages just paid her fine and costs. Miller instead directed Wages to complete 60 holiday-greeting cards, enough for every patient at LifeStream Behavioral Center, a mental health and addiction facility in Leesburg.
Said Miller: "Come Christmastime, we'll pass them out to whoever is in LifeStream and away from their family during the holiday season."
Wages said she made not 60, but 90, cards: "I hope it brightens up somebody else's day."
An Orlando woman turned down Miller's proposal Wednesday to fulfill a sentence for driving with a suspended license by decorating small brown bags that will hold holiday goodies for LifeStream patients. She chose instead to pay a $200 fine.
But Natasha Wells, 30, a divorced mother with three kids, leapt at the same deal for the same offense.
"Pay $200 or have an arts-and-craft day with my kids? Are you kidding?" she asked.
McCovery, cited for the criminal traffic offense while visiting his sister in Leesburg, had discussed his desire to lose weight with Miller in court while asking her to delay his jail stay for a week so he could retrieve his prescription medicine for high blood pressure.
She imposed a 29-day sentence and offered to assess his weight-loss commitment after 20 days behind bars. He credited his weight loss and nine-day reprieve to encouragement from detention deputies, bland jail food and Miller.
"She gave me a chance to prove myself, and I didn't want to let her down," he said.
Miller added a personal note to his release order. It read, "Good job, Mr. McCovery!"