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A N.J. City Borrows From 'Scarlet Letter' To Shame Sex Solicitors

Earlier this summer, an undercover female police officer strutted up and down a desolate street in Elizabeth, N.J.'s red-light district. In less than an hour, she was propositioned 10 times by men offering cash for sex. All 10 were arrested on the spot, one right after the other.

That's when this city of 110,000 decided that traditional methods of punishment fell short. It was time to reach back into a centuries-old playbook for a judicial technique as old as the profession itself: public humiliation.

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In early August, the city's police director announced the new crackdown on sex for sale. Names of convicted solicitors of sex - so-called "johns" - would be painted on a downtown billboard. The logic was this: The threat of public shame is a much more potent disincentive than a $1,000 fine.

"The judicial system lets these people off very quickly," says Elizabeth Mayor Christian Bollwage. His city abuts Newark International Airport and is bisected by the New Jersey Turnpike, so most johns are, not surprisingly, out-of-towners. "They're released and fade back anonymously into their communities."

Initially, Mr. Bollwage and his police director, Patrick Maloney, planned to publish the names of johns in a local newspaper, but the paper wasn't interested. Billboard companies were reluctant too, for fear of liability. So, the city may have to erect its own billboard. "It's simple supply and demand: The women who are providing the service are only in business because there's a demand," says the mayor, who is concerned that prostitution will erode the quality of neighborhoods in his city. "So, take away the demand and the supply goes away."

Such attempts to quash the demand for sold sex - or at least shoo it elsewhere - have seen a revival in recent years in communities across the country. But the jury is still out on whether public humiliation has the desired effect.

Billboards outside La Mesa, Calif., near San Diego, warn, "Attention johns: We take pictures." Mug shots of convicted johns are offered to the press for publication. La Mesa Mayor Art Madrid's theory was the same as Bollwage's: "If we have no johns, we'll have no hookers." But six months after the program began last year, prostitution arrests reached a four-year high.

Most cities experimenting with the modern pillory approach use television as their medium. Boston's "Operation Squeeze" airs videotaped arraignments of its johns on cable TV. Miami, Spokane, Wash., and Kent, Wash., broadcast the names of those convicted of prostitution or drug offenses.

The nearby city of Newark tried a similar approach a few years ago, but it failed. It published a newsletter with the names of johns, but did so at the time of arrest, not conviction.

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MANY feel uneasy using public shame as a means of upholding the law, though. "We are potentially opening up ourselves up to a liability if we don't handle it well," says Ashton Thomas, Elizabeth's prosecutor. "The problem is, we don't do it with other types of offenses, all of them equally undesirable."

Mr. Thomas argues it may be more appropriate to publicize names of drug dealers than johns, who are often otherwise upright citizens. "We had a guy come in recently who was involved in fund-raising for charity. We had a doctor, a fireman, and an accountant. They're not what you'd ordinarily think of when you think of criminals."

The $1,000 fines the city judge usually doles out for solicitation, says Thomas, "is sufficient deterrent, without getting into 'What's going to happen to my marriage?' or 'Will I lose my job?'"

Elizabeth's billboard proposal raises the question: Why not publish the names of sex offenders, drug dealers, or burglars, "rather than someone involved in what is generally considered a victimless crime," says Edward Martone, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in New Jersey.

"To what extent can government assemble and disseminate information that is intended to hurt you?" Mr. Martone asks. "It's going to be up to the courts in the future to draw the boundary line around that kind of stuff. But I guess I understand where [the city's] coming from, and I probably agree with it."

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