This judge has a very unusual approach to the routine cases that are put forward to him, and this has made him an unexpected viral internet star.
Judge Frank Caprio runs the municipal court in Providence, Rhode Island, dealing with parking tickets, speeding fines and petty misdemeanors.
But his compassion for the distressed and occasional use of the accused’s children to help him decide on punishments has gathered him an astonishing following after clips from the local television channel’s regular fly-on-the-wall show about his court, ‘Caught in Providence’, became a global phenomenon.
Now Judge Caprio, 80, has spoken about his surprise at becoming a star, and how he owes it to his own hardworking, immigrant father.
In one video earlier this year, a devastated mother, Andrea Rogers, appeared before Judge Caprio with an accumulation of parking fines. She wept as she explained her struggle to keep her life together after her son was murdered.
‘I’m going to take into consideration the horrific story you just told us, relative to your son. I don’t think anyone in their lifetime would ever want to experience that,’ Judge Caprio tells her before dismissing all the penalties. ‘With our best wishes and hope that things turnaround for you. Good luck to you.’
Judge Caprio told why he thinks the videos have attracted so much attention.
‘Not only in this country but around the world, I think that there’s a sense that the institutions of government are not meeting people’s needs and that it’s a very contentious society,’ he said.
‘I’m always mindful of the fact that the power of the sovereign as opposed to the power of the individual is so disproportionate. Shame on me if I represent the sovereign and I give someone something that they don’t deserve. That’s a strict interpretation of the law.
‘I take it to another extent. If I think there are certain circumstances in an individual’s life or it’s a close call, I give them the benefit of the doubt. I don’t subscribe to the theory that because you were charged you must be guilty.’
Judge Caprio said that he still thinks about thousands of cases which have appeared before him and many people’s struggles resonate due to his own upbringing.
Frank Caprio was born during the Depression and raised with his two brothers in the Italian-American immigrant community in Providence.
‘My father was born in Teano, Italy and he came to America as a young man,’ he said.
‘He was a fruit peddler and he married my mom who was the first-born of immigrant parents. My father was one of ten children and my mother was one of eight. They lived in an area called Federal Hill – sort of the Little Italy of Providence.
‘I was very lucky as a young man because my entire family lived in Federal Hill. Between my aunts, uncles and grandparents, we never went hungry. It was a very close-knit family who had very few, if any, material possessions.
‘We lived in cold-water flats, so-called because we didn’t have hot, running water. We lived across the street from the bathhouse that served the community.
‘Like everyone else, my parents’ hopes and dreams were that their children would succeed, become leaders in society and be good, decent, honorable people – which is what they preached constantly.’
Judge Caprio traces his success directly from life lessons he received from his father, Antonio Caprio.
‘My Dad was a milkman. He would wake my brother and I early in the morning, get us on the milk truck at four o’clock and would constantly remind us; “If you don’t want to do this for the rest of your life, find a way to go to college because I can’t afford to send you.” So we did.’
Frank Caprio paid his own way through Providence College and graduated with a degree in political science.
‘I washed dishes and worked as a counterman at a restaurant. Fortunately during the Fifties, you were able to do that and pay for your own college, not something you can do today.
‘I remember working until 11pm and the next day in college, the kids from the dorms were talking about having had a great time the night before. I never had that college experience and I yearned for it.’
Caprio went on to study law at Suffolk University Law School in Boston, a 100-mile round trip from Providence. At the same time, he became a civics teacher at Hope High School in his hometown to pay for tuition.
‘At 4pm, it’s a two-hour drive to Boston. It was a physical grind as much as it was an academic exercise,’ he said. ‘I’d get home at midnight and then get up at 6.30am the following morning to teach, then try to study for law school and make lesson plans.
‘It never dawned on me that I should quit or not do it. That was the influence of my dad. He was my hero – not because he was a great athlete, could put a ball in a basket or hit a baseball a great distance – but because he got up at 4am every day.
‘When he was sick, when he was coughing, when he was weak, he went to work. He did that for us. He did that for his family.
‘Those were my early life influences and hopefully, wherever he is, he’s proud of me.’
Judge Caprio has established scholarships in his father’s name at Suffolk University Law School and Central High School in Providence for top students that come from first-generation immigrant families.
‘I vividly remember sitting with my parents around a pot-belly stove in the kitchen in the winter.
‘We would discuss life and what we were going to be. I was less than ten years old and my father gave me what seemed like an edict from on high.
‘He said, ‘Someday, you’re going to be a lawyer. I want you to remember the way we are living right now. If unfortunately we needed a lawyer, I can’t afford one. So you can’t charge the poor people – but you’ll make it up with the rich people.’
Judge Caprio continued: ‘I have two sons that are lawyers and to this day, we have never charged anyone that couldn’t afford it.’
Caprio & Caprio is a general practice law firm in Providence Rhode Island, where the judge works alongside two of his five children, Frank and David Caprio.
Frank Caprio Jr was formerly the general treasurer for the state of Rhode Island while David Caprio is a former state representative.
The judge’s early years as an attorney were a different story: after passing the Bar Exam in 1965, he opened a one-room office in Providence.
‘When I first became a lawyer, whatever problem you had when you came into my office, I was an expert.
‘I was still teaching school after I passed the Bar so I had night office hours until 11pm. I would sit there and wait for these big, rich clients to walk in. They never did of course but I was still waiting!’
He ran for public office, aged 23, while still teaching and going to law school and won the seat from a 30-year incumbent council president. He’s still unsure how he found the time.
‘Every waking moment, I spent preparing classes or studying for law school but I didn’t study as much as I should have but enough to get through. I could just hear my father’s words, telling me I was going to be a lawyer.’
Caprio served on the Providence City Council for close to a decade and encouraged young people who feel passionate about making positive change to find the time to get involved in politics.
‘I was encouraged to run after John F. Kennedy got elected. There was a whole youth movement based on not complaining about the system but doing something about it and running for public office.
‘It’s very difficult to get elected because most incumbents are pretty solid in their districts and sometimes, you have to run more than once.
‘You just can’t give up. Hang in there, take the punches. It’s not a sin to get knocked down – it’s a sin not to get back up. Stay in the game.’
Caprio was appointed to the judiciary in 1985 and has been a part-time judge ever since, being reappointed six times.
He credits his wife, Joyce, and his brother, Joseph Caprio, for the success of his courtroom TV show, and confesses he was not fully on board with the concept at first.
‘My younger brother, Joey, always wanted to do videography. When he was in his forties, he got equipment and volunteered to film graduations, police academies, weddings. He would do it for the love of it.
‘A public access channel came into existence in Rhode Island and Joey was able to get two hours a day on it but he had this time and he was running out of things to do.
‘It was actually my wife, Joyce, who suggested that Joey film my court program. At first I said no because I didn’t think anybody was going to be interested in watching and I was going to be the laughing stock of Rhode Island.
‘We compromised and decided to try it out for a couple of months. It just went crazy – and we’ve been doing it for 20 years now.’
The judge admitted that he’s frequently stopped for photos now that his videos have attracted 151 million views, and the majority of those who enter his courtroom are happy to be on camera.
‘Everyone gets tickets because they want to be filmed so we’re increasing the revenues of Providence,’ he joked.
The most-watched videos are often the most heart-breaking and Caprio admits that his own experience of deep poverty has never left him. He recalled one story that his mother, Filomena, would tell him as a child.
‘I get emotional even talking about it at my age. When she was pregnant with me during the Depression, she couldn’t afford prenatal care so she would walk half a mile to a clinic where there was a Chinese doctor who didn’t speak English.
‘On the walk home, she would pass a store which had canned peaches in the window and she would yearn for some but she couldn’t afford it.
‘She was scared that when I was born, I would have a birthmark of peach – as it was an old wives’ tale that if you had an urge for something that you couldn’t have while you were pregnant, that your child would have that birthmark.’
He added: ‘My temperament derived from my parents who lived a life of economic hardship but very strong family values. They reminded us: ‘Hard work and perseverance, don’t ever give up and help people.
‘Despite the little that we had, if you walked into my house within three minutes, my mother would have had food in front of you.
‘The sin of America is the disintegration of the family unit, that’s my own personal judgement. I don’t want to make political statements but somewhere along the line we took a wrong turn in this country.’
The judge has received thousands of fans letters. ‘I answered three notes today and they tell me that I have more down at the court. They are quite revealing and almost every one, either uses the word kindness or compassion. That makes me feel good.’
Judge Caprio noted that many of the cases before him, like Ms Rogers, are extremely emotional. However at times he uses cases as teaching moments for children, with often hilarious results.
One of the videos replayed millions of times is that of then five-year-old Jacob Kroll who wasn’t letting his father off lightly.
Despite the often comic turns of his temporary assistants on the bench, Judge Caprio said his intention is to break down some of the anxieties surrounding the court system.
‘I am particularly sensitive when young, impressionable minds come to court.
‘They come in and it’s very intimidating with the oak-paneled courtroom, police officers with guns, flags, the judge comes in wearing a robe and everybody has to stand. He’s a symbol of authority.
‘Now that youngster – if I start yelling at his mom telling her she has no sense of responsibility, she’s jeopardizing her children and setting a bad example – that kid is going to leave the court trembling and could be traumatized.
‘I make it a practice sometimes to bring the kids up on the bench. I’ll ask them some questions about where they go to school and what they want to be.
‘I always make a point, particularly with kids who come from under-privileged neighborhoods, to ask if they want to be something professional like a judge or an astronaut or a doctor. Maybe I’m placing something in their mind that if the judge thinks I can do this, then I can do this.’
For every child he hopes to inspire, Judge Caprio admits there are some who learn dubious lessons from their time in court.
‘We had this guy who was an aggressive panhandler – he would bang on people’s car windows,’ he said.
‘I gave him a break once, twice. I fined him a little bit, five or six times. He finally came to court and I said: ‘I’m telling you right now, under this ordinance I can sentence you to jail for 20 days. If you come back again, you’re going to serve life in jail – 20 days at a time.’
‘I didn’t see him for a year and a half. One day I was walking in downtown Providence and I heard ‘Judge Caprio!’ It’s him and he has a big smile on his face.
‘I asked how he was doing and he says: ‘I’m doing great – thank you so much, you really helped me out’ – so now I’m happy and I ask him how I did that.
‘He replies, ‘You told me you were going to sentence me to 20 days in jail so now I now take the train to Boston to panhandle outside of South Street Station and I’m making three times as much!’
Caprio believes most people who find themselves before a judge are grateful to get a reprieve but that it’s difficult for those caught up in the opioid epidemic.
‘Five years ago, a guy appeared for petty misdemeanors, two or three times.
‘One day, he was shaking and I told him I wasn’t sending him to jail because he wasn’t a bad or evil person. He had an addiction – and I know it’s tough for them.
‘We were able to get him placed in a facility. Before he left the courtroom, I said: “Every day that you’re there, I want you to know that I’m rooting for you. I really mean that.”‘
Caprio added: ‘A year later, he came back to see me and he was clean. He said: “I was on the street and I never had anyone rooting for me, so when you told me you were rooting for me, it really meant something.”
‘You never know what you’ll say and how it will effect someone’s life.’
But after three decades on the bench, there are still some excuses that leave the judge at a loss for words.
‘I had a fellow come in with a speeding ticket and I asked him if there was anything he wanted to tell me,’ Judge Caprio said.
‘He told me, ‘Judge, it was the shoes.’ I replied, ‘The shoes?’
‘He said, ‘I bought new shoes and I was trying to break them in. I couldn’t tell how hard I was pressing on the gas.’ That was a new one.’