The Justice System Talks And People Listen!

By on September 17th, 2014

One morning last March, Marge Ardly, 35, a pale, thin housewife with the worn-out look of a new mother, started to leave Fred’s department store in the small town of Camden, AR, with a 99-cent tube of lipsticks wrapped in her infant son’s white wool hat. The lipstick activated the store’s alarm system. “You would never have thought she would shoplift,” says a store manager. “She was very presentable. When I asked her to give me her purse to walk through the detector, she gave me everything, she had — even the baby. But she kept holding on to that hat. Finally I asked for that too.”

Ardly appeared before Municipal Judge Edwin Keaton. For that 99-cent tube of lipstick, she had to pay a $250 fine and $50 in court costs and was place on probation for 12 months. But there was an unusual aspect of Keaton’s ruling: He ordered Ardly to go back to Fred’s and spend five consecutive hours walking in front of the store wearing a large yellow sign with bold black letters that read, I got caught shoplifting at Fred’s. The day of her walk, Ardly was clearly angry and embarrassed. “I’m not talking to you,” she told a reporter.

Judge Keaton is well-known in Camden for giving first-time shoplifters this unorthodox punishment. Those who fail to comply are given another chance; but two-time no-shows are usually arrested. “We were having a big problem with repeat shoplifting,” he says. “I had people back in court before they finished paying their first fine. It was costing the city thirty-five dollars a day to house them in county jail.” He was in the market for a fresh idea when he heard about so-called shaming sentences at a judges’ conference.

ALL OVER THE COUNTRY, JUDGES AND district attorneys are experimenting with a kind of punishment last widely used in the seventeenth century. People convicted of crimes including shoplifting, soliciting prostitutes, buying drugs, drunk driving, wife beating, and child molestation are being given sentences aimed at humiliating them in front of their communities. Lawbreakers have been ordered to take out ads in their local paper apologizing for their crimes, march around downtown with sandwich boards proclaiming their misdeeds, have their names printed in huge type on billboards above the city’s freeways, or post signs on their front lawns warning passersby of their violent or deviant nature.

Why shame? And why now? “People fondly remember a time in small-town America when everyone knew each other, and honor and shame were powerful social sanctions,” says David Murray, Ph.D., a social anthropologist and former professor at Brown and Brandeis universities. So, district attorneys and judges — looking for new ways to send a loud message to the public and cheap alternative to prison — are trying to make offenders feel the heat of public scorn.

Texas Criminal Court Judge Ted Poe, who has become a legend in Houston since he started handing out such sentences in 1990, is a big believer. “It’s very beneficial in cases where you are sentencing first-time offenders to probation — especially if you combine it with rehabilitation programs. If you shock ’em, maybe they’ll say, `Hey, it’s not worth the risk. `You can always skulk into and out of court without anyone knowing, but this forces you to face up to what you did.”

Don't let this be you!

Don’t let this be you!

But a number of observers are appalled by the trend. “It appeals to the basest instincts,” says Jenni Gainsborough, the public policy administrator for the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project in Washington, DC. “We believe in restorative justice, not justice that humiliates. When dealing with people who are already alienated from the community, public shaming alienates them even more.”

Diamond Litty, a public defender in Fort Pierce, FL, opposes public shaming because “it doesn’t affect just the defendant. It can have far-reaching effects on the defendant’s family. It creates instability in a marriage, instability for the children. Don’t think for a moment that a child isn’t going to be criticized or teased when the other children find out their daddy is carrying a sign saying I am a thief.”

WHAT ABOUT WHEN the offender is a child? Maria Grackle, 19, is a slight young woman from San Antonio whose straight blond hair, blue eyes, and chipped front tooth make her look like a Norman Rockwell-style kid sister. But she started using drugs, dropped out of school, and became pregnant with her son, now 2 years old and living with her mother. Grackle moved in with a friend, who stole checks from his aunt. Then he and Grackle cashed the checks, totaling in the thousands, with fake ID cards.

She was caught and sentenced to four and a half months in county jail plus another three months in a prison-based drug and alcohol rehabilitation center. But she was also ordered during that time to spend two days a week cleaning up streets, empty lots, and abandoned buildings around San Antonio and doing community work, such as serving meals to the elderly. All the while she was required to wear baggy prison garb and San Antonio’s 1997 version of the Scarlet Letter: a fluorescent orange vest with a neon yellow band and bold black letters on front and back that read: probationer at work.

One day last February, Grackle was chopping down brush in a field when some friends walked by. “They said, ‘Hey, she’s wearing that vest,'” Grackle grimly recalls. “I was embarrassed. But it’s something I brought upon myself.” She says her mother is all for it. She told me “it shows teenagers that they’d better straighten up or they’ll pay the consequences.”

The mother of another young offender in Eastern Texas couldn’t disagree more. Geoff Stevens, 20, a college student, teamed up with four other young men one evening in 1995 to smash the front windows of six local schools. Of the five, Stevens was the only one who turned himself in. (Another was arrested and sentenced to 180 days in county jail.) Stevens appeared before Judge Ted Poe, who gave him a $5,000 fine to help pay for the damages. But he also ordered him to return to the six schools and apologize to the students. At four schools, Stevens spoke over the public-address systems and at the other two, he spoke at assemblies.

His probation officer vividly remembers the day Stevens visited all six schools. “He’s very introverted, and he was very nervous, apprehensive, and ashamed,” she says. “His brother was a student at one of the schools, and that was the most difficult for him.” The principal of one of the schools where Stevens spoke applauds the sentence. “I think it made a real impression on the students,” he says.

Stevens’s mother is still embittered. “He learned a lesson, all right — about injustice. It was a humiliating, degrading experience for him. I can see if all the kids who broke the windows had to speak. But to single him out was unfair.” Nevertheless, he has not been in any trouble with the law since.

FEELING A LITTLE RED-faced, however, may not be enough to make an impact on hard-core criminals, such as wife-beaters or those who neglect their children. Take the case of Tawana Washington, 21, a Fort Pierce, FL, woman who was arrested in April 1996 at ten o’clock at night for buying a $10 bag of marijuana from an undercover cop. She and a girlfriend were parked in a car with Washington’s two young sons, 6 and 2, beside them; the children were dirty and smelled of beer.

Washington had two previous convictions for child neglect for which she was given only probation. This time she was sentenced to 45 weekends in county jail. But Circuit Court Judge Larry Schack also ordered her to pay for an ad in the local paper that included her picture and her name, and read in bold type: I WAS CONVICTED OF BUYING DRUGS IN THE PRESENCE OF MY CHILD. It ran in the Fort Pierce News Tribune last January. Is she contrite now? “I don’t think it’s fair,” Washington says of the ad. “I think it violates my civil rights.”

Then there’s John Seneca, 37, a construction worker from a Houston suburb who was convicted of wife abuse. In December 1995, Seneca’s wife, Linda, called the police, accusing him of physical abuse. He appeared before Judge Poe, who ordered him to publicly apologize to her on the steps of city hall at noon. The judge then invited several local women’s groups and newspaper and television reporters to attend.

“I want to apologize to my wife for all the things I’ve put her through,” Seneca said during his ten-minute speech before a lunch-time crowd of several hundred. Linda, who has been living apart from him since the arrest and plans to divorce him once she can save the money for lawyer’s fees, said the speech meant less to her than to others. “I’ve heard ‘I’m sorry’ so many times,” she told a reporter, “it’s just words now.” Mitzi Vorachek, the director of community education at the Philadelphia Area Women’s Center as well as a writer with the Catholic Standard And Times, a refuge for battered wives, agrees. “The problem with sentencing batterers to apologize is that batterers apologize all the time. And they make all the excuses batterers always make. He said he was learning how not to get angry when someone ‘got in his face.’ So he is still saying it’s his wife’s fault.”

PSYCHOLOGISTS WHO STUDY SHAME SAY that it has little effect on those who have never played by society’s rules and that it can, in some cases, make matters even worse. “In our research,” says June Tangney, Ph.D., professor of psychology at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA, who has spent ten years studying guilt and shame, “we found that people who feel shame are more inclined to lash out and become even more aggressive.” Jane Bybee, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Northeastern University in Boston, who has also spent her career studying guilt and shame, concurs. But she believes shaming might play a role in deterring people who have yet to commit a crime. “One area that is a question mark,” she says, ” is whether the anticipation of shame may be beneficial. We’re preparing a research study on that right now.”

“The short answer is that we just don’t know if shaming sentences work, and we won’t know until we try enough [of them],” says Dan Kahan, assistant professor of law at the University of Chicago, whose Chicago Law Review article endorsing them has encouraged judges to experiment.

So far, in Camden, AR, store managers almost unanimously say that the sentences don’t have much effect. They report that shoplifters ordered to march are so cocky that they show up late, leave early, curse the store owners, and invite their friends to visit with them while on their walk of shame. But Judge Keaton says his sentences have been a deterrent, and the proof is in his courtroom. “The store owners want the people who walk to be upset and cry. But people respond differently — and that doesn’t mean they’re not embarrassed and humiliated.”While shoplifting hasn’t stopped completely in Camden, Judge Keaton says he now hardly ever sees a repeat offender. “For people who just take a chance one time — this rehabilitates them.”

Evidence is mixed. At a Super Kmart in Houston, where five to six shoplifters are caught every day, store director Martin Cochrane says shoplifting “really dropped off” during the seven days a shoplifter marched in front of the store with a sign. But it went right back up after he was gone. Boston law-enforcement officials say there has been a slight drop-off of prostitution arrests since they started publicly shaming convicted johns. They busted 16 men in the first two sweeps last June and July, and since then the arrests in each sweep have dropped to between eight and 12. On the other hand, Miami police say their program to plaster the names of johns on billboards resulted in no drop-off at all in prostitution arrests. Even Judge Poe acknowledges, “It works with some, not with others. You have to decide on a case-by-case basis where you think you can get their attention.”

Even while the debate over effectiveness continues, more people are beginning to ask if the sentences are fair. In Illinois, a farmer who smashed a neighbor in the face with a fuel pump was given only probation, and was ordered to post a sign in the front yard of his driveway that reads WARNING: A VIOLENT FELON LIVES HERE. TRAVEL AT YOUR OWN RISK. His lawyer appealed, arguing that such an order was incompatible with probation, and the sentence was overturned.

Two other completed appeals seem not to bode well for court-ordered humiliation. Two years ago, the New York Court of Appeals ruled that a Hempstead, NY, judge could not, as a condition of probation, order a man who had pleaded guilty to drunk driving, to attach a fluorescent sign to his car reading CONVICTED DUI. Nassau County Court Judge Marc Mogil ordered the sign because the man has six prior alcohol-related driving offenses and no prior punishment has stopped him from drinking and driving. But the appeals court ruled that probation was intended to “advance defendants’ rehabilitation,” and the sign was intended only to punish.

Similarly, a trial judge in Tennessee ordered a man convicted of sexual battery of a 16-year-old boy to post a sign in his yard announcing that he is a child molester. In 1995, citing state law that says the purpose of probation is to give offenders “an opportunity to rehabilitate themselves and to be restored to useful and productive citizenship,” the State Supreme Court ruled that the sign would impose a punishment “beyond the bounds of traditional notions of rehabilitation,”

THE DEBATE SEEMS TO COME DOWN TO this: Does the punishment fit the crime? Consider the arrests of two men, Brian White, 33, and Gary Skinner, 29, who were picked up last Valentine’s Day for soliciting a prostitute who turned out to be a undercover cop. “It was just bad luck and the wrong mix of alcohol and no place to go,” says White, a good-looking, gregarious man.

The two buddies were busted as part of Boston District Attorney Ralph Martin’s Clean Sweep program, which is aimed at trying to rid the city’s Chinatown district of prostitutes. White, a private investigator who is divorced and has a 9-year-old daughter, and Skinner, a bachelor who helps run a family-owned restaurant, each paid a $224 fine. Then they were ordered to return to Chinatown on a Saturday morning to sweep streets and possibly face reporters tracking the well-publicized program.

So on a drizzly gray morning last March, the two men showed up for their early morning date with the public shame patrol. “We didn’t hurt anybody. This is embarrassing,” said White as he began to rake up a children’s playground. If his new girlfriend happened to hear about it, he was planning to tell her he went to the prostitute a long time before he met her. Skinner was upset about the possibility of his mother — whom he hadn’t told about the arrest — getting news of it. His girlfriend of three years doesn’t live in Boston, and he was hoping she never found out.

Suddenly two television cameramen appeared; the two men turned their backs. Both stations ran the film that evening. No one ever mentioned it to White. But that evening, Skinner got a call from his cook’s wife, who had just seen him on TV. “It bothered me,” Skinner said, because we’re very close family friends. She said, `I can’t believe that’s where you wound up!'”

After all that, would they do it again? “I will ninety-nine point nine percent absolutely never do it again,” Skinner said. But White wasn’t so sure. “If I do, I won’t do the talking,” he said. “That’s how we got caught-because we solicited her. It’s like speeding. You don’t think about it till you get caught. Then you say, `Gee, I’ll never do it again.’ And you mean it-till the next time.”

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