In a few small towns of the American Northwest, certain criminals are getting ``scarlet letter'' treatment. Selected felons and misdemeanor offenders are being given the choice of public humiliation as an alternative to jail terms. Public humiliation is achieved through advertisements in local newspapers presenting the details of the offense, past criminal record, and a signed apology.
Used in cases in which the defense has almost no options - and only with nonviolent, borderline offenders - these apologies are published with the convicted person's consent.
One of many sentencing options, public humiliation helps keep prison space available for violent and repeat offenders, while making an attempt at rehabilitation.
``We're now looking more at offenders who are on the verge of not repeating the crime - maybe this is one thing that will keep them straight,'' says Elys Stapleton, district attorney in Lincoln County, Ore.
District Judge Gary Lumpkin of Marshall County, Okla., explains: ``We can't change a person until he knows he's done something wrong; it's basically the way we deal with our kids.''
In the five Oregon cases where public humiliation has been used, all but one of the offenders have moved away. To avoid the problem of an individual committing a crime, then moving to another jurisdiction and repeating the offense, the authorities require that the apology be repeated in the new locale.
This makes reintegration doubly difficult. But so far, none of those has committed another crime, Mr. Stapleton reports. And, he says, public response to this method of punishment has been very positive in his area.
First tried in the town of Newport, Ore., about 1 years ago, the idea has been picked up by other judges and probation officers throughout the country. As a result, public humiliation is being tried as an alternative in Marshall County in minor felony and driving-while-intoxicated cases, says Judge Lumpkin.
Yakima, Wash., will begin using the public humiliation alternative for selective misdemeanors Jan. 1, says probation officer Maurie Harris.
The idea of ``criminal apology'' itself is nothing new, says Carl Reddick, parole and probation officer in the Newport branch of the Lincoln County district attorney's office. ``We'd even heard of a judge who ordered a sex offender to put a sign in his front yard,'' Stapleton says.
But the recent adaptation of public humiliation is mostly a response to overcrowding of jails and prisons.
``We've been forced to look for alternatives to incarceration,'' says Mr. Reddick, ``since ... there isn't any more room in the prisons. We realized that no one was going to go to prison unless they committed a very serious crime.''
Because the county had set a limit on available jail space, the courts were not only forced to restrict jail sentences to those who were guilty of the most serious crimes, but also to find other means of punishing lesser offenders.
Stapleton says this type of punishment serves to educate the public on some of the problems of the criminal justice system, and alerts society as to who some of the criminals are.
Adds Reddick, ``People were being sentenced in a vacuum. Everyone personally involved may know who they [offenders] are, but no one else does, and the taxpaying public deserves to know.''
But Lincoln County, Ore., has a population of only some 2,000. Thomas J. Bernard, a professor of criminal justice at Pennsylvania State University, says he does not think public humiliation would be very effective in heavily populated areas.
Oklahoma's Judge Lumpkin notes, ``I would imagine the `lost in the crowd' type mentality would dilute the effect, unless there was some other way you brought it to public's attention.'
Professor Bernard argues that ``all this is public record anyway ... but if you institute a policy of this sort, several matters of fairness must be taken into account.''
He says that defendants must be given adequate notification of the alternatives, use of public humiliation must be consistently applied, and that it should take place only after conviction, not simply because someone has been arrested and charged.
Although little research has been done on the subject, Bernard says, ``stigma-type punishments are pretty effective with people who consider themselves law-abiding citizens.''
But some experts are not so sure about the potential effects of such a program. ``All this model does is reinforce how bad `they' are,'' says Judith Schloegel, director of the National Center for Innovations in Corrections in Washington, D.C. ``It sets up a dichotomy between `we and they.'''