Shame is back in the United States with a vengeance.
Across the country, judges and prosecutors and jailers are freelancing by imposing their own brands of retributive justice: forcing people to wear humiliating clothing, parade in public and even sleep in doghouses. The punishments are wildly popular with many in the public who want to see criminals humiliated and seem to relish the entertainment of improvised justice.
Two weeks ago, citizens of Bedford, Pa., were able to gawk at Evelyn Border, 55, and her daughter, Tina Griekspoor, 35. The two had been caught stealing from a child and were told by the local prosecutor that unless they performed a publicly humiliating act, they would be hit with heavy charges. They agreed to appear in front of the courthouse holding signs reading, “I stole from a 9-year-old on her birthday! Don’t steal or this could happen to you!” Such scenes are being repeated across the country as citizens are told to choose between degrading public acts or long jail sentences.
Shaming punishments are a return to primitive practices common before the American Revolution, when people were forced into public pillories, marked with scarlet letters or forced into forms of public humiliation, including degrading signs. These shaming punishments declined after the Founding Fathers sought to modernize the criminal justice system and to require consistent punishments.
Gum, manure and doghouses
Elected state judges have found that many citizens relish the humiliation of others. Georgia Judge Rusty Carlisle does not deny that he is trying to degrade people who come before him. In one case, a defendant seemed “kind of cocky” in a minor littering case, so Carlisle ordered him to scrape the gum off the bottoms of the court benches with a butter knife while people watched. The “King of Shame” was Texas Judge Ted Poe, who insisted that “people have too good a self-esteem,” so he made them do things such as shovel manure to abase them. What Poe called “Poetic justice” has little to do with actual justice. It is a form of entertainment that sacrifices our most fundamental principles to satisfy our most base impulses. Judges give the public displays of retribution by using citizens as virtual props in their personal theater of the absurd.
In 2003, Texas Judge Buddie Hahn gave an abusive father a choice between spending 30 days in jail or 30 nights sleeping in a doghouse (He chose the doghouse to be able to keep his job). Likewise, in Ohio, municipal Judge Michael Cicconetti sentenced two teens found guilty of breaking into a church on Christmas Eve 2002 to march through town with a donkey and a sign reading, “Sorry for the Jackass Offense.” Cicconetti later ordered a woman to be taken to a remote location to sleep outside for abandoning kittens in parks.
Studies have actually shown limited value in humiliation as a punishment in terms of actual deterrence in crime. Its principle value is found in the political rather than the criminal system. Indeed, Poe used the popularity of his creative punishments to secure a seat in Congress in 2004.
Now, prosecutors and jailers are trying to cut in on the shaming action. In the Bedford case, the punishment was not ordered by a judge but by a prosecutor, Bedford District Attorney Bill Higgins, who promised to seek probation if they demeaned themselves.
“Giving the people what they want” can sometimes get them to forget what they don’t want — like the bread and circuses of Roman emperors. For example, Higgins was dogged by allegations of adultery and having sex in the very courthouse where he paraded Border and her daughter. Though he faced a criminal complaint and admitted to adultery, no one is calling for Higgins to wear a placard as an adulterer. Instead, he is being heralded for parading the two petty thieves.
Likewise, Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio has long faced complaints over his heavy-handed tactics against both citizens and illegal immigrants. However, most people know him only as the guy who forced male inmates to wear pink underwear to humiliate them.
Some judges have faced charges over their meting out personal justice but have received little punishment. Gustavo “Gus” Garza, a justice of the peace in Texas, was given only an admonishment last year when he forced parents to spank their children in front of him in court to avoid heavy fines. In another spanking case, former Alabama judge Herman Thomas actually used shaming punishments as a criminal defense. Thomas was recently acquitted of sodomy and assault after he allegedly took inmates from their cells for spankings and sex in his chambers. Despite testimony alleging spanking and sodomy, Thomas’ lawyer insisted that the judge was merely “mentoring them” and trying to turn them into “productive citizens” in dealing with them in chambers.
All criminal sentences produce shame for most citizens. But there is a difference between shame from a punishment and shame as a punishment. These judges are inventing their own forms of retributive justice like little Caesars toying with citizens. It is a threat to the basic principles of our legal system. It is an abuse of not just the criminal code but of the criminals themselves. It is not just wrong. It is, in a word, shameful.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors.
November 17, 2009