The defendant before Judge Larry Standley in Harris County, Texas, criminal court in January had slapped his wife on New Year's Eve. The defense and the prosecutor had agreed on a punishment. Standley was about to sign off on it when, on impulse, he tacked on another condition: yoga class. Then came the uproar. CNN wanted an interview. Newspapers worldwide wrote about the yoga judge. Hate mail arrived from a North Carolina man who accused him of promoting Buddhism. Standley stands by his sentence. He says he hopes the combination of traditional punishment and a mind- and body-stretching yoga class will help the man control his behavior. And, he says, it certainly can't hurt. At a time when many of the nation's judges feel hamstrung by proscribed sentencing guidelines, some judges still take advantage of the leeway they have. Though a number of judges are just reacting to the guidelines, others are imposing odd sentences out of frustration with repeat offenders or as a way to avoid sending small-time criminals to overcrowded jails. Others do it simply because they can. Creative sentences, which vary from wacky to touchy-feely to downright mean, are tacked on to jail time, community service and probation. Many are controversial. Sentencing is most restrictive at the federal level, where judges tally up the offenses and use a formula set by Congress to determine prison time. Felony and misdemeanor judges in every state have legal constraints on sentences, but judge in some states have leeway to add conditions. Municipal courts, which generally handle traffic and misdemeanor cases, typically leave the most room for creativity. Judges such as Standley are bucking a trend of the past decade to stiffen sentences and make punishment more uniform. And state legislatures and sentencing commissions, faced with budget deficits and overcrowded prisons, are taking notice. In the past three years, at least a dozen states, including Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan and Utah, have begun to examine and revamp sentencing policies. Drawing distinctions "I think what states are trying to do is incarcerate the most violent offenders," says Barbara Tombs, president of the National Association of Sentencing Commissions and the executive director of the sentencing commission in Minnesota. "States are saying we have to differentiate between the people who we are afraid of and the people who we are mad at. The people we are mad at -- punish them, hold them accountable and turn them back around." No one is sure whether the alternatives work better than plain old time in the slammer. Advocates for sentencing reform say an outlandish or highly embarrassing sentence might deepen an offender's rage and lead to another crime. A number of studies are underway to determine whether straying from the norm reduces crime. "Judges see a problem, and they want to solve that problem," says Malcolm Young, executive director of The Sentencing Project, a non-profit organization in Washington, D.C., which promotes more effective sentences and less reliance on prisons to reduce crime. "Judges want to make sentencing more meaningful than it is now." Among examples: * People convicted of domestic violence or fighting by Municipal Judge Frances Gallegos in Santa Fe are often sentenced to a twice-a-week, New Age anger-management class held in the courthouse lobby. In the lobby, transformed with candles, mirrors and aromatherapy, offenders experience tai chi, meditation, acupuncture and Eastern philosophy as a means of controlling rage. Gallegos calls her methods "therapeutic jurisprudence" and says she turned to the novel approach when she became dismayed by the number of repeat offenders returning to her courtroom. * Municipal Judge David Hostetler of Coshocton, Ohio, this month ordered a man to jog for an hour every other day around the block where the jail is located. The man had run away from police after a traffic accident. Hostetler routinely turns to alternative punishments to keep offenders out of an overcrowded local jail. He received worldwide attention in 2001 when he ordered two men to dress in women's clothing and walk down Main Street as a sentence for throwing beer bottles at a car and taunting a woman. The Ohio Legislature has enacted a law that allows judges to choose alternative punishments if they are related to the crime. "Creative sentencing is not a substitute for jail overall," Hostetler says. Offenders need the threat of jail to compel them to complete their alternative sentences, he says. And he says he's not sure a creative sentence will work any better than jail. He had mixed results with the "drag" sentence. One man stayed out of trouble. The other was charged with assaulting a woman. Judges who choose alternative sentences say they focus on first-time offenders. They say they want to teach the offenders a lesson without ruining their lives with jail or prison time. * Judge Mike Erwin of Baton Rouge first ventured out of the rulebook in the early 1990s. A young man hit an elderly man in an argument "over something really stupid." Erwin ordered him to listen to a John Prine song, Hello in There, about lonely old people and write an essay about it. "I hope it had some impact. I think it did," Erwin says. Since then, he has tried to make people reflect on their actions. When four college students stole an exotic bird from a pet store, Erwin asked them, "How did anyone think this was a good idea?" When none of them could answer, he fined them and made them write "I will not do stupid things" 2,500 times, plus an essay. "We've got so many problems with poverty, education, drugs. We'll never get to the root of the problem," Erwin says. "I just try to grab at some of the ones who are sinking and try to save them." Sentences often criticized The sentences are often controversial, such as when Erwin sentenced a divorced man convicted of killing a girl in a car accident to house arrest so he could keep working and support his three kids. An editorial in the local newspaper "didn't praise me, but they didn't damn me either," Erwin says. Gallegos of Santa Fe, who is running for re-election, says she is "criticized and ridiculed" as coddling criminals. "If I did not have the latitude that I do to create these programs to find different solutions to all the social problems I see, I wouldn't want to be here," she says. "It's really been kind of a mission for me. I'm maybe the most notorious judge in the state of New Mexico." Criminal defense attorney Michael Steven Sherman of Wexford, Pa., last month asked a Butler County judge to reconsider making his client carry a photograph of the man she killed in a car accident after his family chose a photograph of the man in his coffin. "We believe it was cruel and morbid," Sherman says. "In the context of the case, it was never envisioned it would be someone in a coffin." His client, Jennifer Langston, pleaded guilty in September to vehicular manslaughter and agreed to carry a photograph of the victim: teacher and coach Glenn Clark. Clark's mother, Rosellen Moller, 64, of Greenville, Pa., selected the coffin photograph because she felt that Langston did not realize the impact she'd had on their family. Moller says the 30-day jail sentence is an insult to her son and his wife, Annette, who was pregnant at the time of the accident on June 15, 2002, and remains in a coma. "That's not even a slap on the wrist," Moller says. "(Langston) didn't get it. She just didn't get what she had done. We thought that if every once in a while she saw his picture, she just might."