The sign of shame, part 1

I think it has been far too long since we have used shaming as a way of fixing people’s criminal behavior. Things like the scarlet letter used to be pretty popular, as the fictional Hester Prynne found out to her dismay back in 1642. These days, all we really do is impose monetary fines so that they don’t have beer money for a few weeks, and we make them go to classes so that they (hopefully) learn something. Maybe we make them do community service. Other than that, how do we make sure people learned from the experience?

Jail isn’t the answer, people. Jail doesn’t do anything to fix criminal behavior. Sure it keeps them off the street for a little while, but we can’t lock people up forever for most crimes. They are going to get out sooner or later. All we did was delouse them and provide three hots and a cot while they watched TV and got plenty of exercise. For some of these people, a stint in the county’s bed and breakfast is just a way of getting out of the cold weather. Some even say that a little time in jail is how these guys network. They learn from everyone else’s mistakes and refine their game for when they hit the streets again. Nope, folks, it makes us feel good to thump our chests and yell about locking ‘em up and throwing away the key but I don’t think jail works the way we want it to.

But how about a healthy dose of public humiliation! I think it’s just the ticket for convincing people not to be jerks. Lets make them stand out in front of the store where they stole stuff so everyone laughs at them. Make them wear a sandwich board proclaiming how bad they were. It gets the message out to others that this stuff is not acceptable and embarrassing consequences will ensue if you do it. The recent case of the woman in Cleveland is a good example. There is a video on the web of how she drove up on a sidewalk to go around a school bus that was unloading children. It’s a really scary video, especially if you have kids that ride a school bus. The Judge was suitably upset and ordered her to wear a sign at an intersection for two mornings saying “Only an idiot drives on the sidewalk to avoid a school bus.”

A woman in Orlando Florida was recently ordered to stand in front of a local police station for four hours wearing a sign that said “I battered a police officer. I was wrong. I apologize.” She was also required to write an apology letter, go to anger management counseling, and do 50 hours of community service. I extend a wish of good luck to her lawyer because I can never get real apology letters from these people. All they ever give me are short, one-paragraph things saying stuff like “I’m sorry you interpreted it that way” which isn’t an apology at all. They can never write out an honest apology for what they did – because they aren’t sorry. They’re defiant jerks to the bitter end. The best I get them to do is scratch out some half-baked sideways insult.

Maybe if we had more mothers getting in on the act of shaming we would get better results. I like these two women. Both told the news media that they were doing it to save their kids. Of course, before you read this and go marching your own kid outside with a sandwich board, remember that it may not be legal in all states. In one famous case a guy in England caught an employee stealing and marched him down the road with a sign saying he stole a lot of money. The cops arrested the thief and then arrested the store owner for false imprisonment.

It could be a little more grammatically correct but I feel Mom’s anger.

Sign boards aren’t the only way to do this kind of shaming. Ohio passed a law that some drunk drivers have to re-register their car and use yellow license plates. Some other states have hit on the idea of putting a special code letter on license plates to alert cops. One state wanted to use the letter “W” so of course now these are called “whiskey” plates. Now I know that some people object to these kinds of things. They say that these plates prevent drunk drivers from getting fresh starts and moving on with their lives. That is undoubtedly true, just like it’s true that the people they seriously hurt or kill in drunk driving accidents don’t get fresh starts. Society should get a little fair warning of who got convicted beyond a reasonable doubt of being a drunk driver.

Of course, I understand the arguments of some people that these kinds of shaming sessions aren’t always a good idea for kids. The arguments against these signs for juveniles are basically that they are a quick fix instead of a thoughtful approach to complex behavior, they are punitive rather than learning experiences, and they cause lasting psychological harm. I would like to add to the list that many kids’ criminal friends may just think they are funny. Plus, what do you do next to deal with your kid when you have already used your biggest weapon?

This kid seems a little young to be very far down the wrong road but it’s his parents’ call.

I know that kids make mistakes and need parents to teach them right from wrong. I agree that parents are supposed to help their kids learn and grow up, not humiliate them for their youthful mistakes. On the other hand, public shaming really makes the message sink in. Some kids go pretty far down the wrong track and you have to really get through to them. One woman who made her kid wear a sign recently said “Time outs and taking things away just doesn’t work any more. Sometimes a little public humiliation is what they need nowadays to get a point across.” It’s probably a bad idea to publicly shame kids for minor offenses or for their first time doing something bad. But sometimes when nothing else has worked shaming might be a good option.

Maybe it’s better if you give kids a choice. Something like “wear this sign out front all weekend or I take your XBox to work with me for a month” and they see the gravity of the situation. They can’t cry that they were being forced to stand out there when they made the decision to do it to avoid the other punishment. Make sure the kids knows it is true tough love and not the parent lashing out in bitter anger. They will get the message.

I really like the idea of big warning signs like this one. That guy’s picture is worth a thousand words, too.

The same goes for adults. If they’re past the age when we usually assume they have aged out of criminal behavior, shaming might be the only thing to get through their thick skulls. I say we humiliate them so that they really don’t like the experience. Hopefully they will connect stealing with embarrassment and not like it. It might take a couple of times before it sinks in. Sometimes you really have to work to train puppies to not pee on the carpet. However, I think it will work a lot better than warehousing them with their stupid criminal friends for a couple of weeks.

-Samuel Owen

© Samuel Owen 2012. All rights reserved. Please read important notices and disclaimers by clicking here.

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