By Jason Winsky
Illustration by Cody Angell
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Friday November 15, 2002
The human is a funny animal. We are told (at least in political science classes) that a long time ago some of us got together and formed a social contract. These first humans reasoned that by giving up some of their individual rights they could accomplish a collective good. In this manner, Joe Citizen could expect Lisa and Ted Citizen to look out for his safety and his stuff. Of course, he never counted on Citizen Asshole who would break down the whole system by only looking out for himself.
Once this system was established, it seems, successive generations were simply born into it. Once the choice was made, it was a done deal. No one comes to you at the age of reason (these days, between 6 and 30 years old) to sign a paper saying that you agree to live in a civilized society.
So here we are in 2002, still with the social contract idea. For the most part, it's working out. But over time, societies (especially here in the United States) have noticed that there seems to be an increasing number of individuals who thumb their noses at the system. What we're talking about, of course, is the jerk who runs the red light, sleeps with your wife and kills your dog.
Admittedly, the whole world and those civilizations within it have had this problem since the beginning of time. The United States, however, is different. Since we're a relatively young country, we had the advantage from the start of seeing how other countries in the world fared with their systems.
And like at the Sizzler buffet, we had to try it all. We've gone, over time, from giving super harsh Puritan punishments for those who violate the social contract to almost not punishing people at all whatsoever, and then back again.
Our latest idea for the last few decades has been to increase punishments and build more prisons. To some extent, this has worked ÷ until we realized that locking everyone up forever was a zero sum game. Long ago, we pretty much gave up the idea that prisons could rehabilitate people. What we're left with is one of the largest jail populations in the world. Yet, no one wants to let criminals out of jail, either. These days, people are looking for an alternative to both too-long and too-short prison sentences.
Even judges these days are looking for alternatives, not only for already convicted criminals, but to prevent people from ever having to appear in their courtroom. One judge, Ted Poe, a district judge in Harris County, Texas, has come up with a wonderful idea that keeps petty criminals out of jail and deters future crimes: shame.
Shame has been a part of our criminal justice system since it's beginning. It is a time-tested technique that we're just now starting to remember again. We know all about shame punishment here in Arizona. Those unlucky enough to be a prisoner under Sheriff Joe Arpaio suffer the humiliation of wearing pink underwear, and the embarrassment of working on chain gangs for the community to see.
Judge Poe takes it one step further. He's ordered those found guilty of shoplifting to wears signs in front of stores they stole from professing their crime. He's mandated those who abuse their spouses to make public apologies on local television. According to Poe, those who suffer these punishments are embarrassed right out of a criminal career. According to Poe, only two offenders out of 59 who have received "shame" punishments in three years were ever arrested again.
We're at a unique time in this country in that we are able to see a wide range of punishment methods occurring all at once. There is one, however, that we haven't really tried yet.
I was discussing this issue with a good friend of mine, who I'll call A.P. He pointed out that, although "shame" punishments might be effective, no punishment will change a person who doesn't want to change. In his view, any punishment should be followed up with a revised parole system. While we do employ parole officers, it would be nice to see a system in which trusted mentors in our society help rehabilitate criminals in ways beyond just getting a job.
Perhaps it is time to let the criminals in our society feel both shame for their actions and hope for a better future.