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Humiliation Comes Back As Criminal Justice Tool

In Houston, a man is sentenced to stand in front of a store each day for a week carrying a sign that says: "I stole from this store. Don't be a thief or this could happen to you."

In Fort Pierce, Fla., a child molester was recently ordered to post a sign at his home warning children away.

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In Milwaukee yesterday, a convicted drunk driver had the option of a reduced jail sentence if he paraded for 50 days through the business district wearing a sandwich board proclaiming his crime.

Across the country, judges are increasingly turning to a brand of justice not used widely since Colonial times: public shame.

Instead of serving lengthy jail terms, offenders ranging from drunk drivers to spouse abusers are being subject to embarrassment and condemnation for crimes they committed. The impetus for this contemporary version of the stockade is prison overcrowding, a belief that criminals show little remorse, and a sense that the system is not doing its job. Judges, public defenders, and many communities are also searching for alternatives to the expensive cost of incarceration.

The jury is still out on whether shame sentencing will work in the 1990s, in part because it is being tried by relatively few judges, and it hasn't been studied closely. But some judges vow it's effective.

"I have no stats, but people I've imposed this type of sentence on haven't been back through the system," says Ted Poe, a state judge in Houston.

Steven Dodd, who lives in Onalaska, Texas, has firsthand experience with a "shame sentence." After the FBI picked him up in 1990 for abducting his children, Mr. Dodd found himself in Judge Poe's courtroom, where he was sentenced to 180 days in jail and 20 hours a month shoveling horse manure at the stables of the Houston mounted police.

"Judge Poe felt as though I had no respect for the law, that I had a bad attitude, and this would give me time to think about it," says Dodd, who worked in the stables for six years and served 120 days of his jail term. "At first it was demeaning ... then I approached it as another job. Other people in there get paid for doing this ... and I was happy to be out of jail. You pick yourself up because you can't keep wallowing in with the pigs."

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Shame sentences vary from those that require public apologies to self-debasement penalties that involve rituals that disgrace the offender, says Dan Kahan, a law professor at the University of Chicago. But judges aren't the only ones using these practices. Public humiliation has increasingly become a weapon cities are brandishing against sex offenders and drunk drivers. Several years ago Miami emblazoned the names of convicted johns on freeway billboards around the city. Spokane, Wash., televises the names and addresses of arrested drug buyers on its city cable channel. In New York, a slumlord sentenced to house arrest in one of his rat-infested tenements was greeted by tenants with a banner reading, "Welcome home, you reptile!" And a number of communities require convicted drunk drivers to display special license plates or bumper stickers.

The revival of shame punishments started in the late 1980s and has picked up in the past year, Mr. Kahan says. "The growing need to find alternatives to prison and the lack of public acceptance for conventional alternatives, such as fines or community service, is creating the demand for something innovative," he says.

The punishments are diverse. A judge in Memphis, for example, has on occasion allowed a victim of burglary to go into the burglar's home and steal something. In Houston a man convicted of beating his wife was forced to apologize to her on the steps of City Hall in front of hundreds of people. "She didn't want him to go to jail; she just wanted him to quit beating her," says Poe. "He was embarrassed. I did it to get his attention and the attention of other would-be bubbas who think about beating up their spouses."

Still, many shame punishments have drawn criticism, particularly from groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, which say the goal should be to rehabilitate and reintegrate offenders into society, not dehumanize and ostracize them. "We believe in a form of punishment that involves restorative justice-community service where you give something back to the community," says Mark Kappelhoff, legislative counsel in the ACLU's Washington office. "Gratuitous humiliation of the individual - tearing that person down - serves no societal purpose at all ... and there's been no research to suggest it's been effective in reducing crime."

The ACLU "has had it their way long enough. They don't have any answers to crime," Poe says, though he says the punishments aren't for every offender. "Some defendants don't care what anyone thinks; shame would not be effective in those cases, but in many cases people care what other people think about them."

"I personally think some of these judges get a little out of hand with some of these things, but I respect them," says Marc Mauer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project, a Washington group that works on alternatives to sentencing. "The unfortunate fact is that for too many judges the only choice they have sometimes is prison or probation. There are an awful lot of cases where neither of those options makes sense ... and you need something in between to get their attention."

As for Dodd, he says the experience did change his attitude and believes shaming can be effective not for hardened criminals but for first-time offenders. "I'd never do it again," he says.

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