I have previously written about the rise of shaming punishments in the United States in both blogs (here and here and here and here and here) and columns (here and here). We can now add Cascade County District Judge Greg Pinski in Montana who crafted his own flavor of justice by requiring Ryan Patrick Morris, 28, and Troy Allan Nelson, 33, to wear signs reading “I am a liar. I am not a veteran. I stole valor. I have dishonored all veterans.” As always, such punishments are hugely popular with people but they are also, in my view, high damaging to the legal system.
Morris and Nelson were sentenced for separate crimes in attempting to get benefits and preferential treatment from a veterans court. Morris was given a 10-year sentence in prison for violating probation after a felony burglary and falsely claiming to be a wounded veteran with seven combat tours. Nelson was sentenced to five years for drug possession and falsely claimed to be a veteran to gain benefits in a veterans court.
I have previously criticized past prosecutions for stolen valor (here and here) as a threat to the first amendment. Such cases are deterred through social stigma and simple research, as it was here. This was a straight-forward case of fraud where the men could be prosecuted for seeking or securing benefits on false pretenses. These men are looking at serious jail terms.
Yet, it is easy to let the well-based anger overwhelm our judgment and even relish the degrading act ordered by the court. However, these shaming punishments degrade our legal system and turn judges into little Caesars meting out their own justice to the thrill of the public. We have seen judges force people to cut their hair in their courtroom or clean their court bench with a toothbrush. These sentences make justice a form of public entertainment and allow judges to turn their courtrooms into their own macabre productions.
I have no problem with the tongue-lashing from the court, who correctly said that the claims filed by the men were “abhorrent to the men and women who have actually served our country . . . You’ve not respected the veterans. You’ve not respected the court. And you haven’t respected yourselves.”
However, Pinski suspended some jail time only if they agree to degrade themselves with the sign Pinski described. While on probation, they must wear placards on Memorial Day and Veterans Day outside the Montana Veterans Memorial with a sign that reads: “I am a liar. I am not a veteran. I stole valor. I have dishonored all veterans.”
It is a sad statement about people that they secretly enjoy seeing such displays of public shaming. However, a legal system seeks to achieve more than visceral appeal or vicarious enjoyment. It is based on consistent sentencing that does not depend on the whim or pleasure of the particular judge that you pull in a docket rotation. It is no accident that this type of abuse is almost uniformly the domain of state, elected judges. Forcing convicted people to degrade themselves is a way to appeal to voters who relish such scenes. State bar associations and judicial conferences have failed to take action against such improvisational sentencing.