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There's little wiggle room in judge's stance on baggy pants

TAMPA — A day after Hillsborough's jails chief vowed to rid courtrooms of sagging pants and exposed underwear, an inmate arrived in Circuit Judge Daniel Perry's courtroom letting it all hang out.

The judge's response?

He ordered the 39 inmates on his docket Thursday morning back to jail so the trim man in the size 5X pants could get a pair that fit. And for the second day in a row, the judge delayed his start time by more than an hour.

The one-two punch — Perry returned 61 inmates to jail for a few sagging britches on Wednesday — prompted a terse reply from law enforcement officials.

"The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office is well aware of the recent situation regarding inmates and ill-fitting jail uniforms being worn in court," the agency's spokeswoman Debbie Carter said in a prepared statement. "Judges require and deserve courtroom decorum both in demeanor and appearance, and that also applies to inmates appearing before them.

"Sheriff David Gee has ordered the situation with jail uniforms to be rectified today, and all inmates will be issued the proper sized clothing to wear in court settings."

Perry's actions drew mostly praise, with one person commenting on the story at tampabay.com, "there is a reason they call it 'UNDERWEAR.' "

Judge Vivian Corvo issued a similar mandate, telling defendants on Thursday that she wouldn't hear their cases if she could see their underwear.

Law enforcement officials in neighboring counties said they haven't heard similar complaints from judges, and they credited vigilance in making sure inmates are properly dressed.

"We don't give a prisoner that weighs 150 pounds a 3X so that he thinks he's in the hood," said Capt. Ed Beckman, who oversees jail operations in Pasco County. "It starts with the deputy. They're the front line."

Detention officials are "very mindful in ensuring that they dress appropriately not only when they're in the complex but when they go to court as well," said Pinellas sheriff's spokeswoman Cecilia Barreda. "There aren't any major issues with it."

Fellow judges sympathized with Perry's frustration, if quietly not all agreed with his approach. Signs outside Hillsborough courtrooms tell people that shorts, tank tops and gum are not allowed, but judges say they see way too many exposed bottoms, bellies and breasts.

"I tell every inmate that's showing his butt that it's inappropriate and offensive," said Hillsborough Circuit Judge Robert Foster. "They can call it a fashion statement. Let them go try it in front of the Supreme Court of America."

School officials have been cracking down on baggy, bottom-bearing britches for years. More recently, government leaders have joined the fight, with laws against public underwear exposure enacted from Baldwin to Opa-locka. Advocates of the bans talk about decency and moral decay; opponents say they are a waste of time and possibly civil liberties violations.

When Circuit Judge Lynn Tepper handled criminal cases in Pasco County, she warned people who came to court in revealing clothing to clean it up. But she said she saw more improvement when she complimented those who put effort into their attire.

Tracee Lawson designs hip-hop inspired pants that create the peek-a-boo boxer effect without revealing a man's actual boxers. The Tampa businesswoman thinks it's a bit hypocritical for criminal justice officials to take inmates to task for a look that began because belts were kept out of prisons as a safety precaution.

But she concedes that the trend is not fit for every circumstance.

"I'm not going to wear a sweat suit on an interview," she said.

One of Perry's fellow judges sent an e-mail to colleagues Thursday about an upcoming committee meeting. It included this line:

"Proper Attire Required."

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

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There's little wiggle room in judge's stance on baggy pants 09/11/08 [Last modified: Thursday, September 18, 2008 7:32am]
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